Most of the discussion revolved around an idea raised by Michael Kalichman, who observed that the assessment approaches presented seemed to focus on evaluating whether students had achieved a standard set of skills and he questioned whether that should be the goal of ethics education. He proposed instead that ethics education should provide an environment for discussion, inside and outside the classroom, and it should facilitate more discussion among students and principal investigators. Carl Lineberger observed that what teachers of science and engineering ethics were trying to create among students, and then test that they have learned, is a persistence of knowledge, a knowledge that has long-term effectiveness and can spread beyond the individual to change the environment both locally and even internationally.
Kalichman went on to suggest that if ethics education only teaches certain skills or knowledge, then it should be possible, in principle, for a student to test out of the class. This prompted much discussion, with most participants arguing that students should not be able to test out of the class. Stephanie Bird pointed out that allowing students to test out of a class would send the wrong message: it would send a message that there was a limit to what one needed to know about ethics. A few people suggested that students with highly developed skills—those that might otherwise test out of the class—could be engaged as teaching assistants or encouraged to help lead discussions based on their insights, experiences, and perspectives. Bird observed that the involvement of advanced students and postdocs in ethics education can be very important because their thoughts can be more convincing to students than those of faculty.
Michael Davis noted that there was an important distinction between the goals for ethics classes in science and those in engineering because most science students will work in academia, whereas engineers are more likely to work in industry. He said he could understand having an ethics class for scientists that focuses on changing the environment or providing an environment for ethics discussion, but he did not see how this would be valuable to engineers since their working environment is typically outside academia. He concluded that he would be willing to allow an engineering student to test out of an ethics class.
C.K. Gunsalus commented that corporations have been working for some time on improving the ethical climate of their workplaces and that their research could be beneficial to those in academia who are trying to improve the ethical environment at their institutions.
In response to the call for creating an environment for ethics discussion, Joe Herkert reported that in a recent class, students had said they particularly appreciated the opportunity to discuss ethical issues with other students. Heather Canary added that in her research with Herkert they had assessed the environment and its impact beyond the classroom. They did quantitative measurements of classroom dynamics, which included evaluation of how supportive or negative the classroom climate was, instructor argumentativeness (which fosters discussion), instructor verbal aggressiveness (which discourages discussion), and out-of-classroom communication with instructors. They also asked students how often they talked with peers and faculty outside of class and found that higher measures in fostering classroom discussion correlated with higher out-of-classroom discussions, which they called the spillover effect.
The group also discussed the value of formative assessment, in which students participate in evaluating how much they learned. Bird commented that the method had been very effective in a
class in which she had participated, where students at the end of the class analyzed their pretest answers for what they had been missing and assessed what they had learned. Julia Kent added that the CGS has used formative assessment in a number of projects, citing its capacity both to make explicit to students the expectations of a course and allow the students to engage in self-assessment, which has been shown to help students develop useful metacognitive skills. Also supporting the call for formative assessment, Felice Levine suggested that it might be worth both discussing the available data about student learning with students and having them assess it. She also proposed asking students at the end of the course how they might (re)design it, explaining that this could emphasize to the students that the educational process was about collective community education rather than just their own individual education.