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Last Word

Avoiding Engineering Hubris

- By Donna Shirley    

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 of leadership.

 

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 dshirley@asee.org.

 

 

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