Loui explores connection between ethics and work skills

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By Kim Gudeman, Coordinated Science Lab
July 14, 2011

  • ECE Professor Michael Loui is part of a research team examining the connection between ethics training and technical skills.
  • The researchers are creating an experimental online course in computer science to test their hypothesis that training in ethics will improve performance in technical tasks.
  • They hope that incorporating professional ethics into technical coursework will also lead to enhancing retention of women in technical fields.

Michael C. Loui
Michael C. Loui

While knowing right from wrong can keep you out of trouble at work, a University of Illinois researcher is looking at whether it may also enhance your performance.

ECE Professor Michael C. Loui, a researcher in the Coordinated Science Lab (CSL), is examining the connection between ethics training and technical skills through a two-year, $200,000 grant from the National Science Foundation. Other collaborators include researchers at the University of Illinois–Springfield and Parkland Community College.

“We have the rather audacious hypothesis that students who learn professional ethics together with technical content will perform better on technical tasks than students who don’t,” Loui said. “Ethics instruction will provide additional context and meaning to the technical skills they are gaining, which may strengthen their technical competence.”

The researchers are creating an experimental online course in computer science to test their hypothesis. Half of the students will be given ethics instruction early in the course. The other half will study ethics near the end. About two-thirds of the way through the course – before the second group of students receives ethics instruction – the researchers will administer a technical test and evaluate whether there is a statistically significant difference between the two groups.

The researchers hope that incorporating professional ethics into technical coursework has benefits that extend beyond improving performance. By emphasizing the social impact of computer science and engineering, universities may be able to better retain women, who drop out at a much higher rate than men, even with the same academic performance.

“Too often, engineering and computer science classes don’t give broader instruction about how the technical work applies,” Loui said. “By teaching classes in a way that emphasizes solving social problems, we would appeal to everybody.”

Loui is also a co-investigator of CSL’s National Center for Professional and Research Ethics. The center’s signature project is the NSF-funded Ethics Core digital library, which offers ethics resources for academics and professionals alike.

Editor's note: media inquiries should be directed to Brad Petersen, Director of Communications, at bradp@illinois.edu or (217) 244-6376.

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