Methods of incorporating understanding of professional and ethical responsibility in the engineering curriculum and results from the Fundamentals of Engineering examination

Brock Edward Barry, Purdue University


This study evaluated the methods of incorporating professionalism and ethics in the engineering curriculum to determine the nature of the relationship between the curriculum model used and outcomes on a nationally administered, engineering-specific standardized examination. The study’s population included engineering students enrolled at one of nine southeastern public universities between October 1996 and April 2005. The institutions are partners in the Multiple-Institution Database for Investigating Engineering Longitudinal Development (MIDFIELD) project. A mixed-methods (quantitative and qualitative) research program was designed and implemented. The qualitative aspects of the study focused on research questions related to the impetus and considerations given to curriculum changes made by the 23 engineering programs that participated in the study. The qualitative research questions were investigated using semi-structured interviews conducted with program representatives and evaluation of 49 ABET Self-Study accreditation documents. The curriculum model used by each of the participating programs were identified and defined for the period of the study and quantitatively compared to performance on the ethics section of the Fundamentals of Engineering (FE) Examination. The FE Examination is prepared and administered by the National Council for Engineering and Surveying (NCEES) and is the only nationally administered, engineering-specific, standardized assessment that measures performance on ABET-related criteria. A student-level dataset of subject scores was obtained for the FE Examination for all of the MIDFIELD programs. This study represents the first published attempt to utilize NCEES data for the purpose of rigorous educational research. Statistical techniques were used to evaluate the relationship between curriculum methods and examination performance. The findings indicate a statistical relationship, but a lack of structure between the amount of required professional and ethical content in the curriculum and performance on the ethics section of the FE Examination. Thus, while a relationship exists between the quantity of professional and ethical content and the ethics-based assessment tool used in this study, quantity does not appear to be the most significant variable. A possible implication of these findings is that quality of instruction has a greater influence on professional and ethical learning than does the quantity of courses or credits. The findings of this study will have significant bearing on the considerations made by engineering programs when they consider potential professionalism-based and ethics-based changes in what is perceived to be a crowded engineering curriculum. Specifically, engineering programs are encouraged to consider focusing on improvements in instructional methods and instructional environments, as well as ensuring that individuals responsible for delivery of professional and ethical content are in fact excellent instructors. Concurrently, ABET is encouraged to ensure that constructive and detailed feedback is provided to engineering programs on all eleven outcomes listed in the Engineering Criteria 2000 as part of the accreditation review process. Finally, to encourage the use of the FE Examination as an instrument for rigorous educational research, NCEES must consider being more transparent in the release of psychometric properties and preparation guidelines for the Examination.




Ohland, Purdue University.

Subject Area

Educational tests & measurements|Instructional Design|Science education

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