Cheating in engineering classes

I gave an exam this morning and as I was going through the usual honor code speech, the following just came out of my mouth:

“You have to ask why you want to be an engineer if you are cheating in statics.”

I didn’t mean it in a condescending way, but I think it’s true. I have caught a handful of students in various forms of academic misconduct over the last two years, and it baffles me every time. I make it known to my classes that I consider it an honor to report misconduct and help prevent charlatans from actually becoming engineers.

Engineering is a noble profession that requires both technical and ethical competence, intelligence and character. Lack of either disqualifies you and endangers people. The laws of physics are impartial: a bridge can collapse just as easily due to an engineer intentionally cutting corners as it can from honest technical errors.

So, here are a few (somewhat redundant) thoughts directed toward students contemplating cheating (in all its forms):

  • If you can’t pass statics without dishonest intervention, you have unfortunately chosen the wrong career. There are lots of satisfying ways to spend your life besides designing bridges I might drive over someday. Consider:

  • An engineering education is a demanding and difficult road; it only gets harder after a class like statics. It’s wisdom to count the cost.

  • If you do somehow graduate, it is only a matter of time until your incompetence and poor character is revealed. Hopefully it doesn’t take something tragic.

  • Engineering is public service. If you are so consumed with self-survival that you will resort to misconduct, you are an unfit steward of the public’s trust.

  • Character is the point. I conjecture that if you’ll cut corners to pass an exam, you’ll cut corners to ship a design under budget and on time.

  • It’s embarrassing to think that your hard-working classmates will have the same university listed on their résumé that you will. You’re not only making yourself look ridiculous, but tainting the reputation of a prestigious research university.

In the end, it’s not my responsibility to singlehandedly determine a person’s fate as an engineering major, and I am thankful for that. It’s my job to teach and evaluate if they understand statics objectively (why I use blind grading to reduce bias). But perhaps we engineering instructors and professors need to interject more honesty and realism in our methods and interactions with students.

On the other hand, there is almost nothing I wouldn’t do to help an honest student who is struggling, yet working very hard and seeking my help. My students will attest that I happily spend hours re-explaining material and troubleshooting problems. Some of my proudest moments have come from watching incredible improvement in dedicated students who initially struggled.

Yet I reserve little tolerance for students trying to game the system. And by the way, this entire discussion applies to graduate students as well, but that’s another story for another day.

What do you think? Am I being too harsh?

Further reading: American Society of Civil Engineers Code of Ethics

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