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+ By Robin Tatu

Judgement CallsJudgement Calls

History’s ethical dilemmas and dark chapters hold lessons for tomorrow’s engineers.

A couple of years ago, Marilyn Dyrud started checking television listings for programs covering the 1945 dropping of the atomic bomb on Japan. She was stunned to find none. “Television is a kind of barometer of public knowledge,” she says, “and I was horrified, because we forget a lot of things, but we really can’t forget that one.” Her discovery led to the development of a new undergraduate seminar, “Rhetoric of Disaster,” and more surprises: The students could not identify J. Robert Oppenheimer or the Manhattan Project, and only one knew when the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima.

Dyrud, a communications professor at the Oregon Institute of Technology, is known for her teaching of ethics and compelling use of historical case studies. Her courses fulfill an ethics requirement for OIT civil and mechanical engineering majors but also draw students from the departments of engineering technology, computer, and electrical engineering, as well as business, nursing, and medical technology.

Those who joined the spring 2010 “Rhetoric of Disaster” soon made up for their initial ignorance. They went to work researching the development and deployment of the bomb, its environmental and human costs, and, most notably, the question of scientific responsibility.

Dyrud’s courses typically grapple with tough issues. In “Engineering, Business & the Holocaust,” for example, students gain a view of Henry Ford that challenges the industrial legend. They learn how he shared Hitler’s anti-Semitic ideology, how Ford’s German subsidiary used slave labor, and how the Third Reich adapted assembly-line technology to speed the slaughter of Jews. They learn, as well, of other American businesses that aided the Nazis – notably IBM, which provided Germany with punch card technology to support the processing and extermination of internees in Dachau and other concentration camps. “It makes a huge impression on the students,” says Dyrud, when they realize that, had they been living during that time, they might have gotten swept up in “drawing up the design of death camps, building the infrastructure, or playing around with IBM punch cards.’”

The intent is not to shock but rather to push students to confront the kinds of ethical dilemmas they could one day encounter in their work. Important historical cases help expand students’ understanding of professional conduct, so that business and engineering majors don’t think narrowly about finance and regulations but also in terms of larger societal responsibility.

Dyrud’s courses always emphasize applied ethics: “So it’s cases, cases, cases. Big cases, little cases, all sorts of cases; things in the newspaper, even.” She adds, “I think, for the engineering crew, it’s the application that makes the impression.”

The sinking of the Titanic, the Challenger Space Shuttle disaster, and the 2001 Enron scandal are all covered in another course, “Ethics in the Professions.” The ramifications of such high-profile events can be overwhelming, so Dyrud also includes less well known events – a 1973 right-to-die case, factory fires, and the collapse of a molasses storage tank – that allow students to focus closely on critical thinking and decision making.

While the Titanic makes the perfect introductory case study, a companion study of the 1915 Eastland disaster pushes students to ponder the unexpected consequences of even the best intended engineering decisions. The sinking of this Great Lakes excursion ship – which resulted in the deaths of 844 people – occurred as a direct outcome of safety legislation passed in the wake of the Titanic disaster. Some 16 tons of extra lifeboats and life belts contributed to the instability and overloading of the Eastland.

Active Participation

The complex nature of ethics studies requires ongoing student interaction, Dyrud finds. She keeps lecturing to a minimum, focusing instead on small-group discussion, projects, presentations, videos, and even games. Early on, students are assigned to locate, examine, and respond to the professional codes for their field. The exercise helps them develop an understanding of the uses and limitations of professional standards. It also encourages them to think of themselves as professionals and to see the commonalities among different fields.

Students respond to regular written prompts. “Where does a professional’s loyalty lie?” is one query. The mix of different majors means they learn from one another, because “when you study an academic field, you don’t just learn content,” Dyrud points out. “You’re learning a mode of thinking.” Business students are often thinking about costs and benefits, whereas engineering students invariably respond to the loyalty prompt by intoning, “Safety, safety, safety.” For the other students, “it’s refreshing to hear that [engineers] put the public first – because that’s us they’re talking about.”

Beyond assigning frequent written work, presentations, and discussion, Dyrud presses students to think about how they express themselves as professionals. One exercise that challenges their view of technical writing as neutral and formulaic involves a study of memos by Nazi engineers. Students may be slow to realize what is being obscured by such euphemisms as “merchandise” – human prisoners – or “special treatment” – castration and sterilization. Once they make the connection, however, they’re eager to discuss the ethical implications. Dyrud notes that the top 10 hiring criteria in industry involve so-called soft skills, such as communications, writing, and group collaboration – not technical ones. “The same goes for ethics,” she says. “Employers prefer students who have already developed their own compass of ethics.”

Dyrud decided to teach professional ethics after hearing former Morton Thiokol engineer Roger Boisjoly, at the 1988 ASEE annual conference, describe his frustrated attempts to raise concerns about the solid rocket booster and delay the Space Shuttle Challenger launch. “I was so impressed with his presentation, with him personally, and what he went through,” she says. Today, she seeks out guest speakers who can provide similar inspiration – professionals, whistleblowers, and victims. A local woman who spent her teenage years interned in Auschwitz and Dachau comes to relate her experience. “And that, out of anything we do, that makes the biggest impression on them,” says Dyrud. Boisjoly, who spent 23 years speaking to university groups, concurs with her about the power of personal testimony. After every talk, he says, numbers of students would seek him out for further guidance. His key advice: “Always tell your [superiors] about what they need to know, instead of what you think they want to hear.”

Ideally, Dyrud feels, students should be introduced to ethics early on and then, over time, gain guidance in grappling with the complexities. Like Michael Davis of the Center for the Study of Ethics in the Professions at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago, she advocates inserting ethical issues into standard engineering courses, in addition to offering separate ethics courses. What works less well is “farming it out to the philosophy department,” where the highly theoretical language can leave engineering students cold.

An ASEE Fellow who received the James H. McGraw Award this year for her contributions to engineering technology education, Dyrud says one of her “hidden agenda items” is for students to understand that “you don’t do engineering in a vacuum; that whatever you design, whatever you decide, always has repercussions on someone else – a community or whatever – it’s not just you.”

Robin Tatu is senior editor of Prism.




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