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Useful Plagiarism Tools

Excellent article on plagiarism via the Net (December 1998, p. 20). I have used these techniques to detect plagiarized material in my own class. I think informing more faculty members about how to detect such work is extremely helpful.

Christine Gilmore
University of Toledo


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I thought the Julie J.C.H. Ryan piece a contribution to all of us-many thanks.

Frank E.X. Dance
University of Denver

Plagiarism as a Symptom?

December Prism Cover

The author of "Student Plagiarism in an Online World" is to be commended for correctly pointing out a new dimension in plagiarism. Sadly, however, the problem of cheating, grade hounding, and dishonesty has become deeply entrenched in our educational system. Stories of students bringing frivolous complaints against faculty members for giving them less than perfect grades are abundant and are seriously undermining the faith and trust that constitutes the foundation of our educational system.

The fundamental problem, however, is the excessive and probably erroneous reliance on grades as the only measure of academic performance. Perhaps it is not out of place to propose a different paradigm, one that has undergone limited testing at Brown University and Arizona State University. The premise is that grades have lost their original purpose and value as a result of grade inflation, student dishonesty, and the university administrators' apprehension of being sued.

Although good grades may help one land a lucrative job initially, their impact on the long-term career of an engineer is far from significant. One of the keys to a successful long-term career is the ability to reason and think critically. With this in mind, in a select set of courses at the undergraduate and graduate levels, conventional closed-book exams and grading schemes are de-emphasized and critical thinking, learning, and individual projects are encouraged. The students are provided with reasons and anecdotal experiences relative to the value of critical thinking. The examinations are challenging, either take-home or unconstrained time-wise, designed to encourage original and creative thinking, and the grading is individual-based and dictated by the depth of learning demonstrated. The questions are unconventional and the answers are not easily found either in the books or on the Web.

Students quickly realize that it is far more profitable to think through the questions than to surf the Web for precooked answers. The grading is generous and the students are assured that a change in their focus from grades to learning will not jeopardize their final grade in the course. The final result is a class where the work is more meaningful and enjoyable, understanding and critical thinking have become the norm, and plagiarism simply isn't worthwhile.

Sumit Ghosh
Arizona State University

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Don't Forget Theory

I just finished reading "Engineering Education-An Alternative Approach" (Comments, January 1999, p. 4). I think it is a very good idea for colleges to introduce the student to "real life" problems; however, I believe it is as important for colleges to give classes that teach theory.

I am going for my master's right now at a different school than where I received my bachelor's degree. As an undergraduate, we learned almost solely by theory and "normal" classwork. As a graduate student, I have been introduced to more field work and project-based study. I agree with you that a student should learn by trial and error, while working on true-to-life problems. But I also think that the project work should come in the student's junior or senior year.

The way I learned was perfect, because I received all the theory as an undergraduate, and now I see it in practice as a graduate. Since most engineering students do not go directly to graduate school, there must be some type of project-based learning at the undergraduate level. One thing I believe you left out is that by working on projects, the most important concept isn't necessarily the material, but the practical knowledge and experience received: for example, public speaking skills.

The article did, however, really make me think about education in general, and I think you are right on many points.

Jon Hoffman
Manhattan College

Frank Huband Responds

You make a good point, Jon-it is important that engineering graduates have a firm understanding of the mathematical, physical, and other theories underlying engineering practice. It is my belief, though, that there are other approaches than the traditional lecture that might be as or more effective in creating that understanding. Project- or problem-based learning needs to be carefully tailored to assure that students grasp the relevant theories.

The engineering education community must invest significant resources in this capability before it can pay off, but, if well done, it should increase the interest, retention, and competence of the students in the program.

We've Already Measured Success

How Do You Measure Success? 

The process of accrediting undergraduate engineering programs began three-quarters of a century ago and has generally resulted in improvements in undergraduate engineering education. Today, the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology has listed 11 criteria to be considered in the upcoming Engineering Criteria 2000 process. Some of them seem to be a re-emphasis of present criteria, others imply modification for present criteria, and still others seem to be either additions to or replacements for present criteria. Clarity of statement does not seem to be an outstanding characteristic of these 11 criteria, and the pandemic "outcome analysis" (the new speak) is required.

Before serious consideration can be given to these 11 items, the present state of engineering undergraduate education needs to be displayed. What is its primary function? And what are the contributions to society that these programs are now making? Outcome analysis!

The primary function of the B.S. degree programs in engineering is to prepare graduates to enter professional practice. The primary function is not to educate graduates to enroll in Ph.D. programs. Less than 6 percent of engineering B.S. graduates will go on to obtain doctoral degrees.

The contributions that these programs have been making to society may be measured in dollars in two ways: the contribution to the individual student and the overall contribution to the combined body of the undergraduate degree awardees.

A high school graduate entering the workforce might be paid the minimum wage of $5.15 an hour with limited fringe benefits. Such a wage places this individual's income in the bottom quarter of the nation. The average annual beginning salary of a B.S. engineering graduate is around $40,000. This salary (neglecting fringe benefits) places this graduate's income in the upper third in the nation. This is a major and significant upgrade of a human resource.

The overall financial effect of this educational process on the graduating group entering the profession can be estimated as follows. The number of B.S. engineering degrees awarded annually is around 60,000. If 50 percent of them (a conservative figure) are employed directly in professional work, the total payment to them in their first year by their employers amounts to $1.2 billion.

No other undergraduate educational effort can point to such an improvement either to the individual's financial position or to the group as a whole. So much for actual present outcome analysis.

Two conclusions should be drawn from the foregoing paragraphs: The B.S. education presently provided to engineering students has been an outstanding success; and it is the responsibility of those advocating changes to give persuasive evidence that any changes are within the existing time constraints, that any changes will result in tangible benefits to the graduates, and that within the faculties now existing there is the capability to teach the proposed materials.

Serious consideration of the proposed changes should include the following

  1. A clearly stated purpose for including any new or modified materials.
  2. A detailed sample outline or outlines of each subject to be inserted with an estimate of the time needed to cover the subject.
  3. A job description of the qualifications that a person should have to teach the subject.
  4. A determination if a sufficient number of qualified faculty exist in the various programs to teach the subject.
  5. Convincing evidence from employers that they are unable to provide young graduates with the needed supplementary education in the 10 years or so that these young graduates are in their employ.
  6. Universities should accept responsibility to provide this additional education only if they are uniquely qualified to do so.

Until the above matters are addressed, the EC 2000 proposal is little more than persiflage.

J.O. Maloney
University of Kansas

What are engineers?

To be a member of a profession, one has to be licensed. Kindergarten teachers, electricians, estate planners, lawyers, nurses, etc., all must be licensed-but not engineers. There are thousands of "engineers" who have never attended college or taken an engineering course. There are thousands more who have graduated from non-engineering programs but are working as "engineers." When are we as a profession going to make "engineer" mean something? Will the 21st century be any different?

Merle C. Potter
Michigan State University

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