Engineers Meet the Real World: Engineering Ethics

A couple years back I took a class that changed the way I view people, my career, and the world.  Surprisingly it was an engineering ethics class.  I say surprisingly because most of the ethics classes I have taken in the past were awful.  The professors would lay out a scenario that had an ethical component and then tell you what the right thing to do was.  These classes were boring, routine, and even worse they did not prepare me at all for ethical situations I may face in my career.  I felt like since I was a good person I could easily avoid unethical behavior by simply following my gut.  This is a common feeling in engineering students (and maybe engineers at any level) and now I know this is wrong!

The class I took at Virginia Tech with Dr. Marc Edwards and Dr. Yanna Lambrinidou was very different and changed everything I felt about ethics in engineering.  What made this class so different was the approach they took in teaching it.  They did not give made up scenarios and tell us what the right way to handle it was.  They gave real cases and the made us put ourselves in the engineers’ situation and made us draw our own line for what was “right” and “wrong”.  They did this with a lot of passion because they both were closely involved in our main case study.  Dr. Edwards worked hard to expose wrong doings by Washington D.C. engineers when high lead levels were discovered in the drinking water.  You can read more about that here.  By approaching ethics in this manner, it became very clear that the “right” and “wrong” action can be very hard to discern when actually in a bad situation.  No engineer wakes up in the morning thinking that they will poison a bunch of kids in the city that they serve or help cover such things up, but that’s exactly what they were doing.  After taking this class, I can no longer think that just because I am a good person I will do the right thing, I just hope more than anything that if I find myself in a situation I will be able to recognize unethical behavior and have the courage to do something about it.

It is rare to take a class that completely changes how you look at the world and that’s exactly what this class did.  It is so important that not only engineering students, but every student has a similar experience to transform their view of ethics.  For this reason, I think it is important to have some sort of ethics training in every class that is taught.  This is a great way to incorporate real world scenarios into any course, and highlight applications and importance of other course objectives.

Former students Dr. Sheldon Masters and Dr. Paramjeet Pati in the Environmental and Water Resource Department taught Into to Environmental Engineering last year and decided to implement an ethics module.  The module was basically a mini version of Dr. Edwards’ ethics course.  They were presented with case studies of local, environmental and public health disasters and had to empathize with all stake holders (public, engineers, etc).  They surveyed their students before and after the course, as well as surveying students in the same course without the ethics module.  Here were their results:


That’s right!  The students felt LESS prepared for ethical challenges!!  So the class failed right? WRONG! As Sheldon and Param explained while presenting this at a conference in June, the students went from not knowing they didn’t know, to knowing they didn’t know.  The same transformation I had in Dr. Edwards’ class.  This illustration taken from their slides gives a great visual:


Therefore, having the students realize that they did not know enough about ethics is an important step to learning.  Not only that, but it spiked their interest (see below).


I’d call that a success!  Get students in touch with real world scenarios of the coursework, change their thinking about ethics by making them question their ability to handle tough situations, and peak their interest in related topics.  From a pedagogical perspective, it’s a win, win, win.


Pictures and information from:

Paramjeet Pati, Sheldon Masters, Peter Vikesland.  Incorporating ethics into undergraduate environmental engineering course increases students’ ‘conscious icompetence’ and awareness of ethics issues.  Oral presentation at: 2015 AEESP Research and Education Conference; 2015 Jun 13-16; New Haven, CT.

Posted in GEDI

To be filled or to be fulfilled

Accept the passive role! Fill your bucket from the knowledge that I give you! Only my knowledge can fill your bucket!

While reading for this week I kept having flashbacks to classrooms in which I learned to be the passive student and accept the knowledge that the all-knowing professor gave to me, then spit it back to them on an exam.  I (probably like others in the class) got pretty good at this.  Some of my professors were worse than others at practicing the bank method of education.  These were as bad as Freire describes with full lecture halls, the prof talking for 50 min non-stop, students frantically taking notes to go home and memorize.  Freire calls for a complete tearing down of the banking system and says that most profs would fight this because they would like to preserve a system which is profitable for the powerful (them).  In my flashbacks, I can definitely see some of my banking profs having this attitude.  The know-it-alls who obviously enjoy feeling like they know everything and that students should sit down, shut up, and listen to their brilliance in the subject they are teaching.

However…  I’m not sure I completely buy into the complete destruction of our banking education for the complete replacement of problem-proposing education (PPE).  I really like the spirit of Freire’s PPE in which you force more student interaction with the world around them, teaching students how to think instead of what to think.  But I also see the importance in the transfer of key concepts in what could be considered as a deposit of knowledge (the ugly banking education way).  I think some things just need to be taught and accepted by the student so that the class as a whole can move onto more exploratory, challenging, and interesting problems.  Therefore I think a mix of these strategies is appropriate and indeed is what I have enjoyed the most about my favorite profs and classes in the past.  I like classes where you are given the tools (the prof makes a knowledge deposit) and then you get to play with those tools to solve interesting problems (more PPE style).

Or… am I not understanding Freire correctly?? For examples, I’m reading this as, classic lecturing is narrative and therefore bad and needs to be removed from the classroom.  Is there such a thing as cognitive lecturing that is okay and can stay in the classroom?  Would Freire be okay with my plan of some traditional lecturing mixed with problem based learning?  Or would he say I’m snatching away my students’ purpose and replacing it with my own purpose (insert evil laughter here)?

Just an aside… I felt like Freire was a little dramatic in his attack on banking education.  You can definitely tell the man had some passion, but maybe a little over the top with the comparison to slavery…

Posted in GEDI

Loss of Control = Terrifying

We have talked so much about how important it is that students feel comfortable in a class room to create a good learning environment.  It’s clear that there is no room for bigotry, racism, or any prejudice of any kind.  It’s important to treat everyone fairly in the classroom (and obviously everywhere else too).  I’m sure no one in this class would never knowingly treat someone differently because of some physical trait or belief.

It is therefore terrifying to know that we all already have prejudice as a result of the culture we have grown up in.  Even 3 year olds have preconceived ideas of people based on what that person looks like or believes.  So even if we have the best of intentions, we may not have 100% control over how we treat our peers, colleagues, and most importantly, our students.   This is terrifying.  We have an obligation as teachers to not do something that we may not have control over, and can have a huge impact on someone’s future.  Also, since the teacher-student relationship is one in which the teacher has power over the student, its scary to throw bias into such a relationship since the student has little power in the situation.

So how do you prevent this from happening?  Can you limit the times you treat someone unfairly to nothing?  I’m not sure.  But I think the best way to minimize the impact of your limitations is to be aware of those limitations.  Then maybe you can stay off of autopilot when it comes to something as important as treating students fairly.

Posted in GEDI

Trying to be cool in high school

I can remember being so stressed out about what I would wear in high school.  In the mall, bouncing between American Eagle, Aeropostal, and Holister trying to pick out clothes that I saw my “cooler” friends wearing.  However quickly in college I stopped caring and just wore clothes that I liked.  It’s amazing how much we can stress ourselves out trying to be someone we’re not, when being yourself always works out in the end.

When reading “Finding My Teaching Voice” I was reminded of a time where I stressed about who I was in high school.  Just as I tried emulating cool kids in high school and failed because I was slightly nerdy and awkward, Sarah Deel tried emulating her favorite professors and failed because she didn’t have the same characteristics as them.

It’s weird how not being yourself causes so much stress and awkwardness.  Other people can tell you’re not being genuine too.  I’ve been in classes where the professor is trying to be someone they weren’t.  Telling jokes they clearly didn’t come up with and such.  So why do it?  Why try to be something you’re not when it makes everyone feel awkward as a result?

I never thought about it in the context of teaching, but it makes perfect sense that you need to be yourself to be comfortable, you need to be comfortable for your class to be comfortable, and your class needs to be comfortable for it to be a good learning environment.

Posted in GEDI

Winning the grade game

Should assessment be used as a motivational tool?

The way our grading system is set up feels like we are telling students that if they learn (or memorize) enough material, they will be rewarded with an A.  That is a very strong motivational tool for students who place a lot of stock in grades, which is many of them.  Personally speaking, this system worked just fine for me and several of my peers.  We were good a playing the grade game and winning with good grades.  However, several of us who get good grades also enjoy the process of learning (see any grad student), and thus the motivation shifts somewhere along the way to the process of learning the material, not just winning the grade game.

However, this system clearly does not work for everyone, and even may have done those who got good grades a disservice along the way.  The grade game can be a stressful one, and that stress leads to even higher stakes put in the grades students get.  Rapid inflation of the A may lead to an effect described by Dan Pink where the person can no longer think critically and that seems like it may be an issue in education.

So… is assessment a good motivational tool in education?  I do not think there is an easy answer to this.  Perhaps there is a place for grades in a classroom, but used in such ways that don’t stress students out.  For example, less testing and more emphasis on projects and problem solving may be a good way to incorporate autonomy, purpose, and mastery into the assessment process.  In this way, assessment may be an appropriate tool.

Posted in GEDI

Give me the cheat codes

I didn’t grow up playing a lot of video games, and still now I don’t play many.  But on school mornings if we got up and ready in time, my brother, my neighbor, and I used to play Mario Kart on the old SEGA.  I can remember learning how to play the game, learning how to maneuver the courses, collect coins, and ruin my brothers chances of winning with a well placed banana peel.  However, then I remember when we all learned there was cheat codes for the game.  I was thrilled to have an extra advantage and didn’t have to put in the work and time learning how to get weapons to use, I could just smash in the cheat code and get everything I wanted.

It seems to me that our education system is just shoving the “cheat codes” to the students without allowing them to learn how to maneuver the course.  As talked about in Micheal Wesch’s Anti-Teaching article, we are teaching but students aren’t learning.  They merely want to know what they need to do to win the grade game, not what they need to do to grow in the subject they being taught.

I really like the idea of using Buckminster Fuller’s Spaceship Earth idea as a motivation tool to demonstrate how important it is for the students to learn, not just regurgitate information on a test.  Hopefully showing students how important their role is in our future will inspire them to go collect information and not just wait for it to be spoon fed to them.

The only potential problem I see with this method of teaching is in STEM field introduction classes where the material does not lend itself to anti-teaching methods.  The motivational tool of Spaceship Earth may, but not altering the teaching role to a “manager” as described in this article.  Maybe the manager role can be used on occasion, but the majority of classroom time would still need to be spent as a stand and deliver model in order to get through the material needed to help them succeed and solve the problems on our Spaceship Earth.

So cheat codes should no longer be given out and students should have to learn how to learn on their own, but for STEM fields we need to give them the basic tools they need to solve more complex problems on their own.  What do you all think?

Posted in GEDI

Blog on Blogs: Help me understand!

Soooo this is not my first time blogging for a class and I honestly haven’t had great experiences with it in the past.  I don’t mind blogging for other things like my research, or topics I find interesting.  I’ve done this several times with the Virginia Tech Sustainable Nanotechnology blog.  But there’s a big difference between an organic, well thought out, blog about something I’m passionate about, and being forced to write about a certain topic by a strict deadline for a class.

The audiences are also much different between a blog I post for class, and one I post independently or research related.  Someone reading my post on microbes in the environment probably has some baseline interest in that topic, however that isn’t necessarily the case for blogging for a class.  Whenever I blog for a class (especially when comments are mandatory) I always feel like everyone is just skimming quickly and trying to move on to complete the assignment, and the only people I’m going to reach are my classmates who think the title is interesting enough to merit a comment.

For the record, I understand that blogs are important and great, especially in a world where we are trying to get our message out about how cool and important our research is.  As emphasized by the readings for this week, blogging gives a voice to those who might not have a platform for their talent, and this is a great thing.  However the thought that blogging is going to radically change how we teach.. I just don’t believe.  I don’t think there is a difference between blogging and any other writing assignment, and the forced comment approach is no different than any other message board and in my opinion is less productive than a class room discussion that could accomplish the same thing in a more personal way.

I am ready and willing to be talked away from my blogging opinion above and I hope that someone in this class can change my mind forever about blogging for classes.  Then maybe I’ll be like Barney Stinson.. and my blog will be a lot better.

Posted in GEDI

Social Media in Higher Education is NOT a Choice

I found this article written by an administrator talking about struggling to convince his faculty members that they need to be on social media and embrace new technologies available:

In this article he makes some really good points about certain faculty that try to get “cute” points for not “doing” social media.  I like how he says “cute” points because some people take such pride in not being on social media and really all that does is limit the reach you have.

He makes the very good point that higher education is a business based on attracting students to the university and in order to do this effectively you need to be on social media.  It is also an important tool to develop relationships with other colleagues through the sharing of ideas.  He even goes so far as to say that if you are not on social media as a faculty member then you are not doing your job as a recruiter.

I think these are strong words that make a whole lot of sense.  Social media is such a great vehicle for sharing ideas and giving people an idea of who you are and this responsibility should not be taken lightly.

Posted in Prep Future Prof

Should researchers be expected to teach???

As for my thoughts on how to change higher education I have many, but am not confident in many of them…

There is one staple of higher education that I often wonder if it is outdated, and that is the idea that professors should be researching and teaching.  There are some great professors out there that are great at balancing research and teaching responsibilities, but there are many that are terrible at it.  The reality is that professors are doing what any good employee does and focusing their energy on what they are being evaluated on.. and that is RESEARCH.  Therefor I do not question the professors that slack on teaching because they are busy with research, I question the system that pressures them to do this.

As for the fix to this problem…  Maybe we need more positions at universities that are responsible for teaching, and less responsible for research.  I picture a structure where professors are responsible for writing grants, being PIs, and focusing on research, and other professionals assist these PIs with research but are also responsible for teaching classes.  More importantly, the people teaching classes would be evaluated for their teaching responsibilities just as much and maybe even more, as their research. This would give those teaching classes more incentive to focus on teaching well, while still being knowledgeable of cutting edge research.

Posted in Prep Future Prof

Open Access in Environmental Engineering: Journal of Bioremediation and Biodegredation

The Journal of Bioremediation and Biodegredation is part of the OMICS Group International which is an amalgamation of 500 open access journals.  Specifically, the Journal of Bioremediation and Biodegredation says that they are “dedicated to providing the advancements and dissemination of scientific knowledge concerning bioremediation and biodegradation and related academic disciplines.”  They do not go into detail about being an open access journal other than emphasizing a couple times that they are dedicated to the dissemination of scientific knowledge.

In context with “Everything is a Remix” I keep thinking over and over that every journal should be open access.  Since everything is a remix and new ideas are simply built on old ones, why should scientists be the only ones privy to the new ideas?  This seems to greatly restrict the number of people that can take those ideas and transform them into better ideas.  I think this stock pile of professional knowledge that scientists keep to themselves only distances them from the public for which they claim to serve.  Distrust in scientists is growing and openness should lead to more trust.

Posted in Prep Future Prof