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ASEE PRISM
  American Society for Engineering Education
American Society for Engineering EducationOCTOBER 2007Volume 17 | Number 2 PRISM HOMETABLE OF CONTENTSBACK ISSUES
FEATURES
COVER STORY: BANGALORE-JOLT - INDIA’S RAPID HIGH-TECH GROWTH HAS FUELED A HUGE DEMAND FOR WELL-TRAINED ENGINEERS. STARTUPS, INDUSTRY, RETURNING EXPATRIATES AND EVEN A SPIRITUAL LEADER—THE ‘HUGGING SAINT’—OFFER INNOVATIVE WAYS TO FILL THE VOID. BUT ARE THEIR EFFORTS ENOUGH? BY LUCILLE CRAFT
FEATURE: 2 FOR 1 - IN PUTTING ITS BUSINESS AND ENGINEERING SCHOOLS UNDER ONE ROOF, PENN STATE BEHREND AIMS TO FOSTER CREATIVE TEAMWORK WHILE MAKING ITS STUDENTS ATTRACTIVE TO INDUSTRY.  BY MARY LORD
FEATURE: EDUCATOR FOR THE REAL WORLD - JIM MELSA WANTED TO CHANGE HOW ENGINEERING IS TAUGHT, EVEN IF IT MADE HIM ‘A PAIN IN THE NECK.’ BY PIERRE HOME-DOUGLAS

DEPARTMENTS
COMMENTS
CONTRIBUTORS
BRIEFINGS
DATABYTES
REFRACTIONS: LAUNCHING A CAREER - BY HENRY PETROSKI
CLASSIFIEDS
LAST WORD: Saving the Marriage - BY PAUL PEERCY

TEACHING TOOLBOX
Walking the Line - Ethics courses give students an understanding of the dilemmas they will face in the workplace—and the confidence to make wise choices. BY ALICE DANIEL
JEE SELECTS: The Case for Inductive Teaching - BY RICHARD FELDER AND MICHAEL PRINCE
ON THE SHELF: Stunning Growth, Stubborn Problems - BY ROBIN TATU


BACK ISSUES







 
TEACHING TOOLBOX: Walking the Line - Ethics courses give students an understanding of the dilemmas they will face in the workplace—and the confidence to make wise choices. BY ALICE DANIEL“If you see something unsafe, it’s your responsibility to do something about it.” -Michael Loui, University of Illinois  


A key scene in The film “Incident at Morales”
shows chemical engineer Fred Martinez sitting with his wife, an environmental lawyer, on their living-room couch, the hum of a televised basketball game in the background. Glancing down at a document, he tells her that the byproducts from a chemical plant he is designing compose a toxic “stew of nasty stuff.” His employer is saving money by building the plant across the border in Mexico, where environmental regulations aren’t as strict.

Should the engineer’s loyalty to his employer take precedence over the public welfare? Should Martinez take the extra step of lining the evaporation ponds where the byproduct is discharged? If so, will he have to cut costs elsewhere? And do a manufacturer’s obligations to the public stop at national borders?

These are just a few of the questions that “Incident at Morales” was created to raise in the minds of its intended audience: engineering undergraduates. Through films such as this and case studies, the National Institute for Engineering Ethics (NIEE) aims to make students ponder the moral dilemmas that will confront them in the workplace as they grapple with matters ranging from quality control and conflicts of interest to nondisclosure agreements and trade secrets.

Such ethical issues “are just beneath the surface in everyday practices,” says Michael Loui, professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He was one of the executive producers of “Incident at Morales,” which was commissioned by the NIEE. “In the film, nobody does anything illegal. But being ethical is not just being compliant with the law. If you see something unsafe, it’s your responsibility to do something about it.”


Not immoral but sometimes ‘amoral’

Young engineers don’t always have the tools to appreciate the ethical responsibilities of their professional lives, says Joe Herkert, the Lincoln Professor of Ethics and Technology at Arizona State. “One expression I use is ‘It’s not that engineers are immoral, but sometimes in their approach they’re amoral.’ When they enter the workplace, they think those decisions are left to other people, that they’re just there to do their job.”

Giving students the tools to recognize, understand and reach conclusions about ethical issues teaches them professional responsibility, says Loui, who has taught engineering ethics since the mid-’90s. Put another way, students need to learn ethical competence just as they need to learn technical competence. Accreditation guidelines for engineering schools are in concurrence. The Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET) standards require universities to demonstrate that students have a solid understanding of ethics in the workplace. To meet this guideline, most professors integrate the discussion and analysis of case studies into existing required courses. They employ various sources such as documentary videos, films like “Apollo 13” or “The Mosquito Coast,” and websites such as onlineethics.org, the online ethics center for engineering and science, which describes such disasters as the Bhopal chemical leak and the Space Shuttle Challenger explosion.

One way to review case studies is to introduce and dissect moral theories, such as utilitarianism, to see if and how they might apply, says Herkert. Another approach is to introduce the codes of ethics of applicable engineering societies. Students then discuss how they might use these tools in analyzing a case study. But they also discuss the problems with such tools, adds Herkert, who acknowledges the debate within the field as to the practicality of moral theories. Yet, however an engineering course integrates ethics, it has to include a great deal of discussion “if students are going to come to grips with this stuff. It takes a lot of thought and judgment and practice,” he says.


Facing real-life situations

Erica Messenger, a business development manager who took an ethics class with Loui at Urbana-Champaign several years ago, believes the examples of real-life case studies helped her when she entered the corporate workplace. “I am confronted with decision-making all the time for which I need to understand the implications, the greater context and the ethics involved,” says Messenger. “What I learned most in this class was how to write; how to focus on the what, when, where, how and why; how to be explicit, and how to provide just enough context.”

If ethical competence is not taught at the college level, engineering students are placed at a disadvantage when they enter the professional world, says Christopher N. George, a patent attorney with McAndrews, Held & Malloy, Ltd. in Chicago, who also took ethics at Urbana-Champaign. “As engineers gain in responsibility and decision-making, it is critical for them to weigh ethical concerns along with technical and budgetary ones. The easy technical answer is not always the proper ethical one.”


Knowing the right questions

Under the ABET 2000 accreditation guidelines, programs not only have to show that students are exposed to an ethics education; they have to do outcome assessments, as well. As part of her graduate work with Loui a few years back, Golli Hashemian compared feedback from students who had and had not taken an ethics class at Urbana-Champaign.

“What students gained from ethics education was a greater sense of comfort and confidence and the ability to assess a situation to know the right questions and think about situations that may be ethically questionable in a more objective way,” she says. According to Hashemian, one of the most noticeable differences between students who had and had not taken the ethics class was the way in which they approached the questions. Students who had taken the class asked more appropriate or relevant questions and took important details into greater consideration. “[They] were much more comfortable with the questions and more confident in their responses,” she observes. “They were less likely to switch back and forth or second-guess themselves, and they also responded more quickly and definitively.”

In spite of indicators that reveal the value of an ethics education, few large universities require an ethics course. In an ideal world, says Herkert, a student would take a dedicated engineering ethics course and would also be exposed to ethics in a couple of other courses each year. But even incorporating ethics into the curriculum across the board creates problems because faculty members feel they already have insufficient time to reach classroom goals. “We don’t always have faculty support for it,” Herkert admits.

That’s where Michael Davis, a professor of philosophy and a senior fellow at the Center for the Study of Ethics in the Profession at Illinois Institute of Technology, comes in. The author of Thinking Like an Engineer, Davis has given National Science Foundation workshops at nearly 100 schools, helping professors rewrite technology problems to contain an ethical angle. It saves time, and “in reality, it makes the problem more realistic,” says Davis. For instance, students might be asked to calculate how many BTUs per hour are necessary to heat a building in Chicago to between 0 and 20 degrees Fahrenheit. Obviously, the numbers are off—such temperatures would keep the building well below freezing. Yet Davis finds that students often work through calculations without thinking about what the numbers mean. And while this is an extreme example, Davis says companies often set specifications that fall below standards engineers could easily meet. “A good part of being a professional engineer is only solving the right problem,” Davis says. “Just because you are given a set of calculations, it might be the wrong problem.” In class, the wrong problem gives professors an opportunity to remind students that they need to think about the implications of the numbers.

Having shadowed engineers for years, Davis says he was surprised to find how much autonomy they enjoy. He recalls meeting an engineer who had been out of college for five years and was working for Amoco, where he “had the authority to write checks for $1 million to replace equipment.” Davis points out that engineers are in an unusual position. Other professions such as law or medicine focus on the individual client or patient, but an engineer’s primary concern is the public’s well-being. Davis believes most engineering students are morally decent, in part because they are drawn to a profession that serves the public. It’s a notion that recalls the protagonist in “Incident at Morales.” With some encouragement from his wife, Fred Martinez does choose to serve the public good—he ensures that the evaporation ponds are lined. But like most ethical issues, the decision isn’t a simple one. He has to juggle costs elsewhere, using fewer expensive controls and sensors.

More examples of how to integrate ethics into technology problems are available at ethics.iit.edu.

Alice Daniel is a freelance writer and instructor in journalism at California State University, Fresno.

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