PRISM - American Society for Engineering Education - Logo - APRIL 2005 - VOLUME 14, NUMBER 8
tech view
On the Right Track
By Mary Kathleen Flynn

ETHICS IS AN INCREASINGLY IMPORTANT PART OF THE CURRICULUM AT MANY ENGINEERING SCHOOLS.

The next generation of engineers may develop a deeper understanding of the moral dimensions of their profession, thanks to a movement to include ethics in the undergraduate curriculum at many engineering colleges. The trend is part of a larger goal of integrating liberal arts into the engineering curriculum (See "Opening a New Book," Prism, February, 2004). The field of ethics is getting a boost from the wording of the new criteria for accreditation. Advocates are encouraged by a handful of universities that are making ethics courses mandatory, integrating ethics into the engineering curriculum and establishing endowed chairs in engineering ethics.

The Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology's Engineering Criteria 2000 requires engineering programs to demonstrate that their students attain: "an ability to design a system, component, or process to meet desired needs within realistic constraints such as economic, environmental, social, political, ethical, health and safety, manufacturability, and sustainability." Students must also attain "the broad education necessary to understand the impact of engineering solutions in a global, economic, environmental, and societal context."

Of course, the devil is in the details, and schools are grappling with how to meet the new requirements. "Everyone is puzzling about exactly what these mystery sentences mean," explains Mike W. Martin, co-author with Roland Schinzinger of the classic text Ethics in Engineering (Fourth Edition, McGraw-Hill, 2004) and a professor of philosophy at Chapman University, in Orange, Calif. "Every school is sitting down and wondering, ‘Does this mean we have to have a whole course on ethics?'"

The key is to integrate ethics throughout the curriculum. Martin urges universities to introduce ethics at several different points, including freshman orientation and the senior design project. "A one-time guest lecturer from the philosophy department is not going to be very dramatic."

Martin applauds a handful of universities that have integrated ethics into the engineering canon successfully. One is Texas A&M University, which requires engineering undergrads to complete a full course on ethics. Texas A&M has also established one of the country's few endowed chairs in engineering ethics. In January, the university appointed philosophy professor Charles E. Harris Jr. the Sue and Harry E. Bovay, Jr. Professor in the History and Ethics of Professional Engineering. Ronald Kline holds a similar chair at Cornell University. Martin also cites the University of Virginia School of Engineering and Applied Science, which has under its umbrella the Department of Science, Technology and Society (STS). Engineering students are required to complete four courses that focus on the social and ethical dimensions of science and technology, explains Deborah Johnson, who chairs the STS department.

Engineering graduates may face more moral dilemmas in the workplace than ever before, as their employers go increasingly global. As American engineers work more in other countries, they face standards for safety, environmental impact, human rights, and child labor that are less stringent than back home. "American engineers are trained to have the highest safety standards in the world," says Martin. "What happens when you go to another country where costs are lower in part because of cheaper labor and lower standards concerning the environment and safety? What do you do? Do you lower your standards? Engineers have to think about these issues and work out a much more complex and more nuanced moral perspective than in the old days."

Mary Kathleen Flynn has covered technology for more than 15 years for a variety of media outlets, including Newsweek, the New York Times, U.S. News & World Report, CNN, and MSNBC.

 

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