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Michael Pritchard Professor; Co-Director of The Ethics Center Western Michigan University
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Testing by a CO-OP Student

Added06/15/1992

Author(s) Michael Pritchard
Contributor(s) Michael Pritchard
Notes Case study originally published in “Teaching Engineering Ethics: A Case Study Approach” by Michael Pritchard. Center for the Study of Ethics in Society, Western Michigan University, 1992.
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Year 1992
Rights For more information on permissions to use this material please see: http://onlineethics.org/permissions.aspx
Authoring Institution Center for the Study of Ethics in Society, Western Michigan University
Publisher National Academy of Engineering, Online Ethics Center
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  • Posted 9 years and 5 months ago

    Henry West's Commentary: Teaching Engineering Ethics- Testing by a CO-OP Student




    I



    If Jack Jacobs, the co-op student, either faked the test
    results or took a few points and extrapolated the rest, he was
    taking credit for work without doing it, which is like cheating
    on a test or plagiarizing a paper. He was also making the
    company count on work which hadn't been done properly, trusting
    in something which turned out to be unreliable. There are other
    possibilities, however, that shouldn't be discounted. The test
    may have been carried out properly but be an inadequate test
    for whether the part can operate under the strain of regular
    use. The test results may be in error is some other way. Jack
    may have not run the test properly. Although Jack was familiar
    with the test equipment and had previously done similar work,
    he may still have misused it and made honest mistakes. There is
    only presumptive, not conclusive, evidence that Jack did not
    run the tests to the best of his ability. Another issue is
    whether Jack was getting proper supervision in his work session
    at XYZ. It is good for co-op students to get demanding work to
    give them practical experience, but shouldn't their work be
    checked, both while doing it and after done, so that they and
    the company know if they are doing it properly?



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    II



    If Tom had talked with Jack first, what could that have
    achieved? If Jack falsified the data, he might have lied about
    it and simply gotten himself into deeper unethical water. And
    if he did lie, what more would Tom know than he already knew?
    There would still be presumptive evidence that the results were
    falsified, but no more proof than before the conversation. On
    the other hand, if Jack had misused the equipment or had
    extrapolated from a few tests, that might be found out, and
    Jack would be known to be guilty of the lesser of the suspected
    errors. And Jack might not realize that extrapolation from a
    few tests could have the dire consequences that did in fact
    occur from passing on materials which would not stand up under
    complete tests. There would be two reasons, then, for having a
    conversation with Jack. One would be to find out more about
    what really happened. The other would be to impress upon Jack
    the consequences of his poor performance.



    But is it Tom's responsibility to get in touch with Jack?
    Students are hard to reach at the University. Jack may not have
    a private telephone, and to write a letter hoping for an answer
    is a slow way of doing something. Furthermore, the case is not
    just about Jack. It is about preparation of students for co-op
    work and, ultimately, for their professional work. Tom wants
    the Co-op Coordinator to be informed that a student probably
    falsified data or at least extrapolated from a few tests, which
    is not adequate job performance. The Coordinator should be
    told, for Jack's performance reflects on the University and its
    training of its students. Jack's identity would be hard to keep
    secret, in case Tom wanted to do so; but there isn't any reason
    to keep it secret. There is evidence that Jack failed to do
    honest work.



    Another question is whose job it is to discipline Jack if he
    has done dishonest work for XYZ. XYZ could refuse to have him
    return as a co-op student. It could also write a letter to the
    coordinator to put into writing the charge. It could inform all
    the people at XYZ with whom Jack had worked that if he asked
    for letters of reference, they should be aware of this failing.
    But ultimately, the University has to be responsible for
    dealing with Jack's dishonesty. How should it be dealt with by
    the University? If Jack is getting academic credit for the
    co-op work, should it be denied? If he deliberately falsified
    the data, should he be dismissed from the University? What
    procedure should be used for ascertaining the facts and
    assigning a penalty? Should this be treated in the same way as
    a case of cheating on a test or plagiarizing a paper, and by
    the same procedures? Or is honesty something that the
    University should leave to society in general and the
    conscience of the individual?



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    III



    It is easy to say, when something goes wrong, that more
    supervision is required. Jack was in his second work session at
    XYZ. He had done similar test work, and his co-op work had been
    usually well done. Why shouldn't he have been trusted to carry
    out the tests without supervision? Would the work of a regular
    employee have been supervised any more closely? Why, then,
    shouldn't a co-op student with Jack's experience be treated
    like a regular employee?



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    IV



    There are many areas in which a course in professional
    ethics might sensitize students to issues that they haven't
    thought about. But is this one of them? Surely, Jack knew that
    he should not falsify data. All lab courses emphasize the need
    for accuracy in data taking. But he might not have been
    sufficiently sensitive to what the consequences of short-cuts
    in testing might be. If that is the issue, and if that is the
    ethics of the case, then ethical instruction needs to include
    such sensitivity to consequences, not just rules of honesty and
    so on. Insensitivity to real consequences of one's work may
    also be due to the way lab work is graded. In lab work, the
    consequences are only a grade. If one knows what the results
    are supposed to be and gets those results, it may not have any
    practical consequences that one didn't carry out procedures
    properly. In lab work, if one makes a mistake in procedures,
    and they show up in the answers, one gets a poor grade. If one
    makes a mistake in procedures, but they don't show up in the
    answers, one may get by with a good grade. So maybe there may
    be a fault in the way labs are run and lab work is graded.



    What might have motivated Jack to falsify the data or to
    extrapolate from a few tests? Probably it was the time
    constraint. In order to finish before returning to the
    University, he didn't have time to run all the tests. So there
    was a conflict between his self-interest, in wanting to look
    good by finishing the tests, or in wanting to work less
    diligently, and the company's interest in having the tests run
    properly. How can sensitivity to this conflict, and willingness
    to be responsible in one's work at the expense of some
    short-term self-indulgence, be taught? Perhaps some
    role-playing would help. If one student was put in a situation
    like Jack's and another in the situation of that of supervisor,
    another in that of coordinator of co-op students, and so on,
    for this and other situations of conflict of interest, students
    might come to see things from more than one perspective and
    develop an awareness that in taking an irresponsible short-cut
    they are not only taking the risk that they may be caught,
    which will hurt their future careers; they are letting someone
    else down. Ethical sensitivity requires awareness of the
    possible bad consequences of one's action, both for self and
    others, and willingness to see things from more than an
    individual point of view.



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  • Posted 9 years and 5 months ago

    Joseph Ellin's Commentary: Teaching Engineering Ethics- Testing by a CO-OP Student




    I



    Co-op student Jack is given an important test to do and
    produces results that are too good to be believable; evidently
    he has faked the data. XYZ relies on Jack's results without
    confirming them and the consequence is that the tested
    component fails in operation, bringing down the units with it.
    Apart from the obvious point about faking data, the only
    ethical issue I see in this case is the questionable decision
    to assign an important test to a co-op student, and then to
    accept his results unconfirmed; but given the constraints on
    time in the department, this seems like a decision within
    management competence, and doesn't necessarily raise any
    ethical problem, even if it turns out to have been a mistake.
    No health or safety problems occur as a result of the units'
    failure, so the company is harming only itself by its loose
    supervision. Perhaps co-op student Jack ought to have been
    supervised more closely (especially in view of the importance
    of the project), but this too is judgment rather than ethics,
    and Jack's good record does not indicate supervision is
    required.



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    II



    Jack's supervisor relates his worry about Jack to Jack's
    professor. In general, before an accusation is made against
    someone to a third party, that person ought to be confronted
    with the charges and have an opportunity to explain himself.
    However the conversation with Dr. Thompson was presumably
    strictly confidential, and nothing is said to indicate that the
    questions asked by Tom were out of line. Tom is unsure of how
    to proceed and wants to discuss the question with someone who
    knows Jack better; also, Jack is no longer under Tom's
    jurisdiction. So if something is to be done, the ball has to be
    passed to the University. Further Tom's interest seems to be
    not punitive but correctional, since he puts his inquiries
    about Tom into a context of ethical training at the University
    (this could be a smoke screen of course). Since Jack has no
    current association with XYZ, the company is in the position of
    a victim of Jack's wrongdoing, not a prosecutor entrusted with
    dispensing justice.



    For these reasons, Tom's move in talking to Dr. Thompson
    seems warranted. It's not clear what purpose would be served if
    Tom were to talk to Jack. Jack is now the University's problem.
    However if Dr. Thompson subsequently talks to Jack, Tom might
    be called in to produce the dubious data and explain his
    suspicions. What else happens depends on what comes before.
    First it's necessary to understand why Jack faked the data (if
    he did), and to make sure that Jack understands that doing so
    was wrong. Based on the information in the case, there's no
    reason to exclude Jack from XYZ in the future, assuming this
    problem gets cleared up and Jack's future trustworthiness is
    established, though such a reason might emerge after discussion
    with him.



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    III



    In hindsight, supervision of students is obviously not too
    satisfactory.



    On the other hand, the department was busy and supervising a
    student whose previous work had been well done might not have
    seemed the best way to use time. Perhaps all co-op students
    should be closely supervised as a matter of course; I don't
    know enough about what they know or what they're supposed to
    do. Or perhaps Tom's initial response, to suggest that all
    students take ethics and be made to understand the importance
    of honest data, is the best solution.



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    IV



    So should State put in an ethics course? Yes. See this case
    for a reason why.

  • Posted 9 years and 5 months ago

    John B. Dilworth's Commentary: Teaching Engineering Ethics-Testing by a CO-OP Student

    Did co-op student Jack Jacobs falsify the test data? Let us
    assume that he did, to keep the case ethically interesting.
    Then we can quickly agree that he should not have done it, and
    that he should be approached to find out why he did it. Also,
    clearly there is a need for much more stringent monitoring of
    co-op students, given that one of those in whom the supervisors
    had the highest confidence nevertheless betrayed it. The most
    pressing question above concerns why he did it. Not, I hasten
    to add, as a question about Jack's individual psychology, but
    rather as a question about his social and scientific attitudes
    insofar as these were molded by his education. We need to
    discover what was missing in his training, or what was present
    yet in some very inadequate form, which resulted in him being
    able to do such a thing. Or, to put the matter in another way,
    what factors should we emphasize more in education, in order to
    effectively prevent students such as Jack from falsifying data
    in future?



    The case queries us as to whether material on professional
    ethics should be included in student education. This should
    certainly be of some help in cutting down on the amount of data
    falsification, plagiarism, and other unethical practices.
    However, ethics by its very nature has two separable aspects or
    sides, a theoretical and a practical side. The theoretical side
    concerns ethical knowledge and truth. The practical side
    concerns personal motivation and commitment to act upon one's
    ethical beliefs. Unfortunately, an intelligent student could
    fully understand (or seem to fully understand) and even agree
    with ethical claims such as that is unethical to falsify data,
    but still have little or no commitment or motivation to
    actually live up to such ethical beliefs. Another way to put
    this point is that unless the person him/herself is
    significantly changed by the ethics course (or in no need of
    change), the practical goal of preventing data falsification is
    unlikely to be achieved.



    Ideally we would ensure that students achieved (or already
    possessed) a good moral character at school, because merely
    changing their knowledge and beliefs will not guarantee good
    behavior or any real commitment to morality. Is there anything
    else we can do, in case students fail to acquire or have enough
    moral character? Fortunately there are still some other fairly
    powerful motivators, which involve the self-interest of
    students. Methods based on self-interest are admittedly
    second-best methods, because students influenced by them do the
    right things for self-interested rather than specifically moral
    reasons.



    Nevertheless, we should not despise any legitimate methods
    which can help to prevent moral evils such as data
    falsification. 'Self-interest' methods can be divided, as in
    the traditional fable about a donkey, into 'carrot' and 'stick'
    approaches. A donkey can be encouraged to move forward by hope
    for the reward of a carrot, while a stick is available to
    punish any refusal to move forward. Similarly, in the present
    case we can convince students that there will be rewards for
    them if they behave as good scientists should, while on the
    other hand there will be punishments if they do not behave
    correctly.



    On the positive, 'reward' side, one of the more interesting
    approaches would be to convince students that it is actually in
    their interest to acquire a good moral character. For example,
    a good case can be made that if students work on becoming more
    conscientious, concerned about the truth, etc., they are much
    more likely to find scientific work satisfying and enjoyable,
    and much less likely to perceive science as often tedious and
    pointless. Other self-interested rewards of science for good
    individual behavior are more closely linked to potential
    punishments for bad behavior. For example, the reward of a
    long, secure career in science is available only to those who
    avoid certain punishments, such as being dismissed from a post
    after falsification of data is discovered.



    An education which stresses both how attractive a successful
    scientific career can be, and also how disastrous to one's
    career even a trivial immoral act might be, has the best chance
    of ensuring self-interested good behavior from students during
    their careers. At the same time, we may continue to hope that
    such 'self-interested' educational methods will become
    increasingly unnecessary.

  • Posted 9 years and 5 months ago

    W. Gale Cutler's Commentary: Teaching Engineering Ethics -Testing by a CO-OP Student

    The aspect of this case that should produce the most concern
    is the apparent and immediate conclusion by Tom that Jack
    "faked" data without any concern about the results of his
    action. This is equivalent to a "guilty until proven innocent"
    approach to justice. The first action taken by Tom when he
    learned that the results of the stress test were suspect should
    have been to bring Jack into the discussion, either by
    telephone or, in view of the seriousness of the situation, by
    paying Jack's expenses to return to the laboratory to discuss
    the tests. If Jack has a valid explanation for the results he
    obtained, the failure to bring this explanation into
    consideration could place an irreparable blight on Jack's
    career because of the hasty accusation. This contact with Jack
    should also have occurred before the University co-op
    coordinator was contacted with the fear that Jack had falsified
    data.



    However, in terms of proper management of co-op students it
    is unthinkable that the important tests such as Jack was
    running were not closely supervised and the results checked
    periodically. Such supervision is the essence of good
    laboratory management and in no way displays a lack of trust in
    Jack (or any other employee so supervised). At the very least,
    Jack's test results should have been carefully reviewed before
    he departed for college.



    Certainly we have reason here to question the proficiency of
    laboratory management in the Material Science Department at
    XYZ. To judge Jack's behavior we also need to know exactly what
    his instructions were when assigned to do the tests. Was he
    told how critical the tests were? Or was he led to assume the
    tests were merely routine? Did his supervisor say quickly, "I
    need this part qualified by the end of the week?" If that's
    what Jack heard he could have interpreted the directions as
    "hurry and run some tests but the part is going into production
    anyhow." In research and development situations we must always
    take the time to explain all of the "why" of the problem when
    we delegate a task. Analytical test work, in which the answer
    depends particularly on the question asked and how it is asked,
    demands an especially careful statement of the problem. If in
    subsequent conversation with Jack he confesses to falsifying
    data he should be severely reprimanded and probably XYZ (unless
    extenuating circumstances are revealed) should terminate its
    co-op relationship with Jack.



    In the reprimanding (and terminating) procedure, Jack must
    be reminded of the responsibility of an engineer. To quote the
    National Society of Professional Engineers Code of Ethics:
    Engineering is an important and learned profession. The members
    of the profession recognize that their work has a direct and
    vital impact on the quality of life for all people.
    Accordingly, the services provided by engineers require honest,
    impartiality, fairness and equity, and must be dedicated to the
    public health, safety and welfare. In the practice of their
    profession, engineers must perform under a standard of
    professional behavior which requires adherence to the highest
    principles of ethical conduct.... There is a growing and
    encouraging trend to incorporate the teaching of ethics into
    the engineering curriculum. This incorporation is being done
    best in the form of case studies in engineering courses so that
    the student has an opportunity to combine the study of both the
    technical and ethical considerations of engineering problems.
    Such instruction brings home to the engineering student the
    responsibilities of the engineering profession and the personal
    obligations of members of the profession. Responsible people
    accept moral responsibility for their actions!

Cite this page: "Testing by a CO-OP Student" Online Ethics Center for Engineering 6/15/1992 National Academy of Engineering Accessed: Wednesday, February 10, 2016 <www.onlineethics.org/Resources/csaindex/co-op.aspx>