I am instructing a section of a senior level capstone design course at an engineering university, split into two groups each working on a different project. One group of six is working with some specialized computer hardware, the relatively cheap RTL-SDR USB devices. They have expressed an interest in continuing to learn with these devices after the project is over, but I of course can't give them University-owned equipment. So, I had the bright idea to spend $10 per student out of my own pocket and give them these RTL-SDR devices as a prize for a project successfully completed. My intention is to further their academic interests in this field, and it costs me relatively little to do so, similar to treating them to dinner.

So, two ethical queries:

  1. Is giving a $10 prize/gift to each of six students itself ethically questionable? It bears mentioning that I am research faculty, not a tenure track professor, and my teaching evaluations have no bearing on my career at this stage.

  2. Is it unethical to give a gift/prize to one team and not the other? I have four more students working on the second project, and would gladly invest $10 per student in that group as well. However, their project doesn't lend itself to some low cost, project related hardware that they can continue to learn with after the project is over.

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    $10 is not much for even a student to spend if they wish to pursue a topic. An offer of continued guidance on their topic of interest would be worth much more. – Luigi Apr 23 '16 at 22:35
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    Regarding point (2) in your post, is there a similarly priced gift that at least relates to the second project? For instance, a book, or something similar? – anonymousPhdStudent Apr 24 '16 at 0:28
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    To point 2, yes, I've just today found a similarly priced item that relates to their project. – rajb245 Apr 24 '16 at 1:21
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    Rather than giving them as "gifts for project well done", why not just say "If you are still interested in continuing to learn with the devices after the project, come see me after and I'll work something out?" Its still a gift, but now it is positions as a reward for enquiry rather than for work done. And it is not positioned as being related to the Course as such. – Lyndon White Apr 24 '16 at 1:26
  • I think this is context specific. Is this common practice at the institution? – Darrin Thomas Apr 24 '16 at 22:16

Many institutions have a dollar limit on what is considered a small gift that does not present a conflict of interest or other unethical circumstance. $10/person is probably well below that limit but you could probably check with admin.

However, that does not prevent the students of the second group perceiving unequal incentives for the different projects. It could be de-motivating for them to see the other group being materially encouraged. It would be ideal to somehow equalize the incentivizing of both projects.

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