Hubris \'hyu-bras\ n: exaggerated pride
or self-confidence often resulting in retribution.
We are surrounded by examples of hubris, from the greed
of corporate leaders who loot their companies, to the arrogance of
government officials who refuse to share information on their decision-making
processes, to the misrepresentations of facts by media more interested
in profit than in providing real information. ABET requires that engineering
students be taught ethics; but how can ethics be conveyed in a way
realistic and memorable enough to train engineers to deal with the
heart-wrenching decisions some of them will have to make, particularly
when they become managers?
Using space engineering in general and NASA in particular
as an example: The recent shuttle Columbia disaster has reopened discussions
about engineering ethics—for example potential conflicts of interest
for NASA personnel involved in the investigation. NASA has been adrift
since Apollo, which landed the first humans on the Moon in 1969. The
Apollo program, one of the greatest engineering and management achievements
ever, established an unrealizable standard for the agency, which has
no real long-term plan.
Since Apollo, NASA administrators have struggled—less
to find a sustainable purpose and vision for NASA—than to feed
the giant government and corporate infrastructure built up by Apollo.
In order to sell the space shuttle to the Nixon administration the
then-NASA administrator used hopelessly optimistic estimates of flight
rates and operations costs. The Challenger accident was traced directly
to NASA's attempts to live up to its unrealistic promises made
to sell the shuttle.
In the 1980s, the NASA admini-strator sold the space
station to the Reagan administration at a fraction of what the engineers
who worked on its design estimated it would cost. Still another NASA
administrator admitted after the failure of both Mars missions in 1998
that he "pushed too hard," forcing unrealistically low
cost targets, which led to inadequate testing and training. Many more
examples can be found in military and commercial satellite projects.
Working engineers in many fields struggle to fulfill
promises made by managers exercising extreme hubris. Many of these
managers are engineers. As working engineers, they would probably never
falsify data, but the pressures of management seem to, in many cases,
break down their resistance to unethical and reckless behavior. How
can we, as engineering educators, provide guidance to engineering students
who may be confronted with the moral dilemmas like those confronting
NASA engineers and managers?
The 2003-2004 ABET Criterion 3 for engineering accreditation
specifies, "Engineering programs must demonstrate that their
graduates have...an under-standing of professional and ethical responsibility." At
the University of Oklahoma, ethics is presented in the freshman introductory
engineering class. In my class, "Managing Creativity," student
teams identify and deal with potential ethical dilemmas. "Leadership," taught
by a retired Air Force general, emphasizes the ethical responsibilities
of leadership. OU professors also address ethics in senior design classes.
ASEE publishes papers on such topics as "Embedding
Ethics in the Curriculum." An ASEE policy statement says: "New
engineering graduates need substantial training in recognizing and
solving ethical problems." How is the effectiveness of this training
to be measured? ABET suggests that assessment include alumni surveys.
Since practicing engineers and managers are most likely to be confronted
with real ethical dilemmas, an evaluation of their experiences and
how they dealt with them would be most valuable. Would alumni be willing
to share these experiences? Could ASEE collect them?
ASEE has an opportunity to take a stronger stance on
engineering ethics. A new group focusing on ethics has just been formed
within the Educational Research and Methods Council. This group should
specifically address the assessment of the effectiveness of engineering
ethics education. The focus should include collecting the experiences
of practicing engineers and engineering managers. What in their training
allowed them to avoid hubris, or what failed to do so? In a world increasingly
dependent on the ethics of engineers, ASEE should provide an example
Donna Shirley is an instructor of aerospace mechanical
engineering at the University of Oklahoma and a former manager of
the Mars Exploration Program at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. She
can be reached at email@example.com.