Cheating and Engineering
How many of us work in high rise buildings? How many drive over bridges to get there? Chances are that none of our lives are untouched by engineers. We depend upon them knowing how to do their jobs and having the ethics to do them well. But do they?
A recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, which starts with a quote from a mechanical engineering grad student, suggests that a significant number of them do not. According to a survey at Tufts University, 43% of students admit to cheating on their homework and 22% to cheating on exams–and many professors do not take steps to prevent it. In fact, Duke University Professor Donald McCabe says that faculty members told him, “I’m not here to teach honesty; I’m here to teach engineering.” Perhaps this explains why, as was estimated in a Duke University study, about 75% of students cheat while at university. This is confirmed by what was reported by Dr. Trevor Harding after surveying 650 students at 12 colleges. 60-90% admitted to cheating while at college. Engineering students were among the worst offenders. Since the data suggest that of those who cheat at college, 63.6% will also cheat in the workplace, this is a very disturbing trend.
What is the solution to this problem? Dr. David Pritchard, a physics professor at MIT has developed a detection system to catch those who cheat on their homework. But that just pits the students against the teachers and gives the message that it is the teacher’s job to control the students’ behavior, not the students’ responsibility to act with integrity.
Dr. Harding seems to have a better approach. He is working to understand why students cheat, factors like insufficient time to complete assignments, inferior quality instruction, and a lack of connection to the professor due to large classes. One student told me, “The reason people cheat is that this is their whole future. Their morals may say don’t cheat, but their student debt says they cannot afford to fail.” That is another perspective.
The predicament of the modern-day student is of course not an excuse, but it may provide a clue on how to begin to reverse the cheating epidemic. We need to educate students and professors on the importance of learning and teaching, respectively, the subject matter. We need to teach them to practice intellectual honesty both in the classroom and beyond. This is one of the goals of AITSE–hopefully making this a safer world for all of us.