In This Issue
Engineering Ethics
September 1, 2002 Volume 32 Issue 3

Continuing and Emerging Issues in Engineering Ethics Education

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Author: Joseph R. Herkert

The author discusses the pros and cons of pedagogical trends and curriculum models for teaching engineering ethics.

In the past two decades, many changes have been made in engineering education, including a growing awareness of the importance of ethics and social responsibility to engineering. Prompted in part by political controversy over the social implications of technology and the changing educational standards promoted by the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET), engineering educators have begun to take seriously the challenge of preparing professionals who are both technically competent and ethically sensitive.

This is not to say that required courses in engineering ethics have become the norm. Stephan (1999) determined that nearly 70 percent of ABET-accredited institutions have no ethics-related course requirement for all engineering students. Although 17 percent of institutions do have one or more required courses with ethics-related content, these courses are not usually on engineering ethics per se, but on philosophy or religion or other subjects. Nevertheless, engineering ethics has begun to make its mark in engineering curricula as evidenced by required courses at some institutions, across-the-curriculum ethics initiatives, and numerous elective courses.

Content of Engineering Ethics Instruction
Davis (1999b) succinctly describes the hoped-for learning outcomes of teaching engineering ethics:

    Teaching engineering ethics . . . can achieve at least four desirable outcomes: a) increased ethical sensitivity; b) increased knowledge of relevant standards of conduct; c) improved ethical judgment; and d) improved ethical will-power (that is, a greater ability to act ethically when one wants to).

A key concept in engineering ethics is "professional responsibility," that is, moral responsibility based on an individual's special knowledge. According to Whitbeck (1998), "for someone to have a moral responsibility for some matter means that the person must exercise judgment and care to achieve or maintain a desirable state of affairs." As Martin and Schinzinger (1996) note, the goal of responsible engineers is "the creation of useful and safe technological products while respecting the autonomy of clients and the public, especially in matters of risk-taking." In addition to a fundamental commitment to public health, safety, and welfare, engineering ethics is typically concerned with conflicts of interest, the integrity of data, whistle-blowing, loyalty, accountability, giving credit where due, trade secrets, and gift giving and bribes (Wujek and Johnson, 1992).

Many observers, such as political philosopher Langdon Winner, are critical of the traditional preoccupation of engineering ethics with specific moral dilemmas confronting individuals (Winner, 1990):
    Ethical responsibility...involves more than leading a decent, honest, truthful life. . . . And it involves something much more than making wise choices when such choices suddenly, unexpectedly present themselves. Our moral obligations must . . . include a willingness to engage others in the difficult work of defining the crucial choices that confront technological society . . . .

Similar critiques of engineering ethics have been made by many others, including: Vanderburg (1995), an engineer himself who distinguishes between "microlevel" analysis of "individual technologies or practitioners" and "macrolevel" analysis of "technology as a whole"; and Ladd (1980), an ethicist, who argues that professional ethics can be delineated as "micro-ethics" or "macro-ethics" depending on whether the focus is on relationships between individual engineers and their clients, colleagues, and employers or on the collective social responsibility of the profession.

One response to these critiques would be to broaden the discussion of engineering ethics to include the ethical implications of public policy relevant to engineering, such as risk and product liability, sustainable development, health care, and information technology (Herkert, 2000b). Another approach, advocated by Lynch and Kline (2000; see also Kline, 2001), is to focus more on "culturally embedded engineering practice," that is, institutional and political aspects of engineering, such as "contracting, regulation, and technology transfer." Knowledge of such nontechnical, but nonetheless "ordinary," engineering practice, they argue, would provide engineers with the insight to anticipate safety problems before they escalated into technological disasters.

Political scientist E.J. Woodhouse (2001) also notes that engineering ethicists have traditionally overlooked macroethical issues, most notably, he argues, the problem of overconsumption. Woodhouse maintains that overconsumption requires the immediate attention of engineers, and he suggests alternative approaches to engineering ethics based on collective professional responsibility and the role of engineers as consumer-citizens.

Although traditional concerns are not likely to disappear or to be subsumed under these new paradigms, interest is growing in integrating ethics instruction into a broader framework that includes the social context of engineering.

Pedagogical Trends
Ethical Frameworks
The ethical frameworks for teaching engineering ethics have traditionally included engineering codes of ethics and the application of moral theories. Many engineers, among them Unger (1994), are staunch defenders of the utility of codes of ethics, although, at the same time, they acknowledge their limitations. Some philosophers, such as Ladd (1980), have been skeptical of the relevance and usefulness of codes, which, they argue, are largely self-serving and of little help when it comes to ethical reasoning. Other philosophers, most notably Davis (1998), place great stock in the usefulness of codes.
Recently, some philosophers have also begun to challenge the importance of ethical theory in coming to grips with ethics in applied settings, arguing that formal discussions of abstract moral theories are not necessary for teaching professional ethics and, indeed, might even be counterproductive because they may "turn off" practitioners who doubt their relevance. Whitbeck (1998) has gone so far as to argue that the problem-solving approach used in engineering design is a useful paradigm for solving ethical problems.

The Case Method
The most popular tool in teaching engineering ethics is the case method (Harris et al., 2000). Cases can be long or short, real or fictional, technical or nontechnical; they may be available in print, online, multimedia, or video formats. Most cases are self-contained, but some include documentation, such as book chapters (and sometimes entire books), journal articles, news accounts, and primary source archives. Despite this variety, Davis (1999a) notes that case methods have several common characteristics, including encouraging students to express ethical opinions; encouraging students to identify ethical issues and formulate and justify decisions; and encouraging the "develop[ment] in students [of] a sense of the practical context of ethics."

High-profile cases used in teaching engineering ethics include the 1979 crash of a DC-10 in Paris that killed 346 people (Fielder and Birsch, 1992), the 1981 collapse of suspended atrium walkways at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Kansas City that killed 114 and injured dozens (Pfatteicher, 2000), and the explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger in 1986 (Pinkus et al., 1997).

These high-profile cases may be useful for attracting the attention of engineering students, but the typical ethical dilemmas encountered by most engineers are more mundane. Therefore, case studies of more common-place events are also used in classrooms. For example, fictionalized reviews of actual cases considered by the National Society of Professional Engineers (NSPE) Board of Ethical Review involve conflicts of interest, trade secrets, and gift giving (NSPE, 2002).

Several ethicists, most notably Pritchard (1998), have called for the development of more cases that focus on "good works," that is, cases that demonstrate that making sound ethical judgments need not end with whistle-blowers being demoted or fired. One such incident is the case of William LeMessurier, a civil engineer who designed the CitiCorp Building in New York. When he discovered, after the building was in use, that it had not been properly constructed to withstand hurricane-force winds, he went to his partners and to CitiCorp and insisted that immediate action be taken to strengthen the building’s structural joints (Online Ethics Center for Engineering and Science, 2002).

Engineering Ethics Resources
In the past decade, resources for engineering ethics education have increased considerably. Well-established textbooks have come out in new editions (Harris et al., 2000; Martin and Schinzinger, 1996; Unger, 1994), and new texts are periodically published (e.g., Gorman et al., 2000; Herkert, 2000b; Whitbeck, 1998).

The explosive growth of online materials and resources, including cases, course syllabi, instructional modules, codes of ethics, and essays, has been equally important (NCSU, 2002). The most extensive online resource is the Online Ethics Center for Engineering and Science, which includes material on a wide range of topics, such as engineering practice, responsible research, and moral leaders. The Center for the Study of Ethics in the Professions (2002) at Illinois Institute of Technology maintains an online version of its library of professional ethics codes that includes more than 850 documents. Several professional engineering societies, such as NSPE and IEEE (2002), also post codes of ethics and other relevant information on their websites.

Many educators use the Web’s interactive capability as part of their teaching of ethics. For example, faculty and students at the University of Virginia have developed detailed, multimedia cases focusing on ethical issues in engineering design (Gorman et al., 2000). The goal of the project is to "develop and disseminate cases and supporting materials that teach students to exercise good judgment and moral imagination, that help them learn that design always entails an ethical perspective, and that demonstrate that environmental design is both challenging and viable" (Gorman et al., 1997).

Curriculum Models
The Required-Course Model
A few engineering programs have established required courses in engineering ethics for all students. Although this approach has been successful at Texas A&M (Rabins, 1998) and a few smaller institutions, because of high staffing costs and an already tightly packed engineering curriculum, the required-course model is unlikely to be widely used. In addition, unless a required course is supplemented by further instruction in ethics in mainstream engineering courses, this method may leave students with the impression that ethics is a sidebar rather than an integral part of their engineering studies.

Across-the-Curriculum Model
An alternative approach addresses the limitations of the required-course model by spreading ethics instruction throughout the engineering curriculum. The key to the success of this model is overcoming the resistance of engineering faculty to the importance of ethics instruction and demonstrating to them, through faculty development initiatives, how ethics material can be incorporated into their classes. Consider, for example, the engineering curriculum initiative at the University of Michigan, which is driven by the philosophy that the best way to develop and maintain an across-the-curriculum program is to make subtle changes in the way engineering is taught so that ethics and safety are seen as common attributes of good engineering practice (Steneck, 1999).

The across-the-curriculum program at Illinois Institute of Technology has focused on faculty development initiatives that help engineering faculty incorporate ethics material into their technical courses. As Principal Investigator Michael Davis notes (1999b), by focusing on ethical issues in ordinary engineering problems, this "pervasive method" can be implemented without relying on formal moral theory and without sacrificing coverage of technical material.

The across-the-curriculum approach, which of necessity involves the training and participation of more faculty than stand-alone required courses, clearly places ethics in the mainstream of engineering education. Sometimes though, because ethics material is often covered in small chunks in disparate courses, the subject may lack depth and continuity.

Integration of Engineering Ethics and Science, Technology, and Society
The ideal solution (where practical in terms of staffing requirements and room in the curriculum) is to use a combination of methods - a required course in engineering ethics and an engineering curriculum that recognizes the importance of ethics throughout. Educational research and anecdotal experience of faculty suggest that engineering students have both the motivation and the ability to engage material that deals with the social context of engineering. Therefore, a fruitful curriculum model would simultaneously address: (1) professional and ethical responsibility and (2) the societal context of engineering. This linkage would also address the criticism of traditional engineering ethics instruction, noted earlier, that it focuses on microethical problems - dilemmas confronting individual engineers - but neglects the macroethical issues related to the nature and development of technology.

A successful example of this model is the Program on Technology, Culture, and Communication (TCC) at the University of Virginia School of Engineering and Applied Science. All engineering students take a four-course science, technology, and society (STS) core, which includes 7 to 22 weeks of ethics content, most of which is included in a two-course senior sequence, "Western Technology and Culture" and "The Engineer in Society" (Soudek, 1999). Integration with the overall engineering curriculum is achieved through required senior theses on the social impact of technical projects; these are overseen by members of the TCC faculty.

Accreditation Criteria and Engineering Ethics
Many ongoing developments in engineering ethics education have been influenced by recent changes in ABET’s accreditation criteria. Engineering Criteria 2000 (EC 2000) promises to alter significantly the landscape of engineering education. One potential outcome of EC 2000 is increased attention to the ethical responsibilities of engineers and the societal context of engineering. Among other EC 2000 outcomes, "engineering programs must demonstrate that their graduates understanding of professional and ethical responsibility . . . [and] the broad education necessary to understand the impact of engineering solutions in a global and societal context." As I have argued throughout this article, these two outcomes are closely linked.

The Liberal Education Division (LED) of the American Society for Engineering Education has developed recommendations for addressing these and other liberal education outcomes under EC 2000. In an LED "white paper," Steneck et al. (2002) identify "professional responsibility" as one of four objectives of a liberal education; the other three are communication, technology and culture, and intellectual and cultural perspectives.

Continuing Challenges
Although significant progress has been made in bringing ethics into engineering education, much remains to be done. Meeting the substantial challenges posed by EC 2000 will require curricular innovation, faculty development, and program assessment. Ethicists will have to further refine their approach to research and teaching to make it more relevant to engineering design (Whitbeck, 1998) and practice (Lynch and Kline, 2000), as well as to the international context of engineering ethics (Weil, 1998).

The greatest challenge, however, confronts engineering faculty. Because required courses in engineering ethics are not likely to be widespread, it will be incumbent on the engineering community to ensure that ethical problems, standards of conduct, and critical thinking skills are developed in the context of technical courses. For education in engineering ethics to fulfill its promise, engineering educators must face head on the societal and ethical implications of engineering. This task, which must begin with self-education through reading, the use of online resources, discussions with colleagues, and, where available, faculty development seminars, will not be complete until engineering faculty are enthusiastic about and comfortable with discussing ethical issues and the social implications of technology with their students.

This article is an abridged and updated version of an earlier paper (Herkert, 2000a), portions of which draw upon my prior work.

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About the Author:Joseph R. Herkert is associate professor of multidisciplinary studies and director of the Benjamin Franklin Scholars Program at North Carolina State University.