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Not All Black and White

Esat Alpay  wants students trained to make objective decisions amid confusion and competing demands.A course probes the gray areas of engineering ethics.

By Thomas K. Grose

In 1971, the Ford Motor Co. launched the Pinto, a big-selling subcompact with a big problem. If rear-ended by another car traveling faster than 25 mph, its gas tank was likely to leak, explode, and catch fire — a defect Ford’s engineers were aware of that ultimately was linked to at least 27 deaths. The automaker chose not to correct the problem, however, calculating that it would cost the company more than paying claims for subsequent deaths and injuries.

When chemical engineer Esat Alpay recounts this harsh episode of cost-benefit analysis to his first-year engineering students at London’s Imperial College, they’re shocked. To a person, they say they’d never go along with such a decision. But as Alpay’s students eventually learn, not all ethical dilemmas that engineers might face are so stark. Moreover, even the most upstanding engineers can wind up on the dark side of morally suspect decision making propelled by motives ranging from fear to self-interest to groupthink.

To get Imperial’s engineering students thinking about these issues, Alpay — a senior lecturer in engineering education who also oversees the training of graduate teaching assistants — developed an Engineering Ethics course in 2009 that was piloted in the aeronautics and bioengineering departments. It was so well received that last year the course expanded to two more departments, computing and chemical engineering, with electrical engineering joining the roster this fall. The effort also won Alpay the 2011 Teaching Award in engineering from the Higher Education Academy, an independent organization, partly government funded, with a mission to improve teaching and learning.

The course has two parts. In the first half, students attend three to six lectures over three weeks that cover ethical issues both small (students’ personal biases) and large (the role of engineering in society). To keep his students fully engaged, Alpay makes use of anecdotes, role-playing, debates, and videos. Case studies range from such major events as the Pinto debacle or the overriding of engineers by higher-ups in the space shuttle Challenger disaster to some that hit closer to home, including why some students resort to plagiarism. In the second half, students work for two weeks in teams overseen by their tutors (faculty advisers) to devise fun methods to encourage their peers to think about ethics. The top three projects win awards, and this fall they will be posted on a website so faculty can put the ideas to use. Last year, for instance, a team of computer engineering students devised screen savers that highlighted ethical issues.

Alpay, 46, arrived at Imperial in 1992 as a postdoc with a Ph.D. in chemical engineering from Cambridge University and an undergraduate degree from the University of Surrey. (Past research activities included absorption processes, hybrid reactors, and polymerization processes.) But a strong personal interest in pedagogy spurred him to earn a master’s in the psychology of education from the University of London’s Institute of Education. The creation of the ethics course coincided with a push from the accrediting bodies of U.K. engineering schools to make students more aware of ethics, and to ensure they have the skills to work on culturally mixed, multidisciplinary teams as well as to deal with a wide variety of stakeholders. Alpay also devises methods to embed ethical thinking into advanced engineering courses. For example, a bioengineering design course now requires students to do 30-minute presentations on the ethical basis of their designs.

Alpay’s goal is for Imperial engineering students to learn how to think about the long-range effect of their work. He also hopes they will develop the ability to make tough decisions based on “sheer objectivity and transparency” in confusing environments, amid competing demands. If students gain those skills, Alpay says, then even if something goes wrong “they’ll know they can live with themselves.” They also are less likely to ever succumb to the kind of blind, groupthink calculus that drove Ford’s deadly Pinto decisions.


Thomas K. Grose is Prism’s chief correspondent, based in London.




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