GPP14: Day 2 – UZH, ETHZ, and the Swiss Education System

It seemed like a very long day, but yet it was over before we know it. Day 2 of GPP14 had a super packed itinerary, as we visited both University of Zurich (UZH) as well as the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich (ETHZ). An interesting thing about these two vastly different higher educational institute is that they are literally across the street from each other in Zurich. In fact, when ETHZ was first founded, it shared facility with UZH. Of the two universities, UZH is the larger (the largest in Switzerland, in fact), more comprehensive university, while ETHZ is the prestigious technical school that is world renown in their engineering and natural science programs.

One of the main discussion topic we focused on during our visit to both institution was on the uniqueness of the Swiss educational system. One of the major differences between the Swiss educational system and the ones in other countries is the importance and respect they put in a vocational (or applied/professional) education route. In this route – which is actually what most Swiss youths would choose over what we would consider an academic university route – place a great emphasis on practical training and apprenticeship. After lower secondary education (similar to US junior high), if the student chooses the vocational route, they would enter an apprenticeship in an occupation of their choosing. Methods to determine admission to the apprenticeship varies from canton to canton, but usually some kind of entrance examination is involved. During the apprenticeship, the student would work for a few days out of a week, then go to school for a couple of days. This so-called dual system of vocational education enabled very hands on practical training. The closest approximation we have in the US is perhaps a co-op, but that really only exist in a higher education context.

I am curious on the historical context of such an apprenticeship educational model. The theory on how it works seems sound, and obviously it must work well since it’s been the norm in Switzerland for so many years. Is the development of such a system mostly cultural? I’m trying to imagine if the apprenticeship model would work in the US at all. We’ve had discussion both in the PFP and GEDI class about whether a college education is necessary for all youth to have a successful career. The perception, at least in my experience in the US, seems to overwhelmingly favor college education for career development. Whereas in Switzerland, only a small percentage of their youths would go to what we would consider a traditional college career. Making college education more accessible certainly does have its advantage, but does it also carries the risk of diluting the uniqueness of that experience and opportunity? On the other hand, one can also argue limiting college education to the elite is, well, elitist.

Moving forward to day 3, we will head on over to Strasbourg, France, and visit the University of Strasbourg. These are all questions and thought we need to keep in our minds.

GPP2014: Day 1 – Of course, after that came dessert.

Here we are. After a whole semester of preparing and building up, the 2014 Global Perspective Program (GPP2014) cohort has arrived at our first destination: Zurich, Switzerland. Thus begin our wonderful journey to explore higher education in a global context. Our cohort had already made some interesting initial observation about Zurich, Switzerland, and perhaps Europe. The prevalence and convenience of public transport is definitely one of the first thing we noticed. Some of us also observed that the city seems to be quieter in comparison to other US cities of similar scale. Most of us were shell shocked at how expensive everything was; a regular beer at a bar can cost 10 CHF (about 11 USD)! Combined that with a decent dinner, a couple bar hop with a beer or two at each location, let’s just say that our initial estimate of the amount of cash we would need was grossly inaccurate.

Some cultural differences are immediately obvious, while others can be quite subtle. We’ve already began to continue our discussion about the in-and-outs of Swiss higher education. We’ve noted that Swiss universities obtain most funding from the government (be it federal or cantonal), with maybe a small portion from other external sources. This is exactly the opposite situation in USA. Having a steady supply of funding from a reliable source enables Swiss universities a very different paradigm in how they conduct research work. For example, research activity might be much less publication driven. This may lead to a vastly different graduate education experience. As our fellow GPP member Katy noted, the workload of a Swiss doctoral student can be less demanding when comparing to some US doctoral students, where they might be expected by their advisors to produced 4 to 5 refereed publication by the end of their graduate education career.

We end the night with some casual conversations and amazing food and drinks. Not contended to just have fondue or raclette, WE HAD BOTH. The amount of cheese I consumed is probably not healthy to even THINK about, but it brought me great joy, so I have to believe it was all worth it? IT WAS ALL WORTH IT. Of course, after that came dessert. Glorious dessert.

Tomorrow we will explore and learn about University of Zurich as well as ETH Zurich. Two vastly different institution but in very close proximity. Both, incidentally claim Einstein as their own.


Working on the Tonawanda case definitely opened my eyes to how often severe ethical violations can be made that undermines the well-being of the public. The point the kept being brought up during the town meeting was that the Tonawanda case is not an isolated incident. Similar violations occurs all throughout the country. I thought the Town meeting was a good experience, as I was able to hear viewpoints beyond the ones from my stakeholder (who had minimal involvement with this particular case). I think I was very relieved to hear that there were retired consultant and current professors who are helping the cause. I did hope to hear more from the other side, especially more from the regulatory agency (DEC and EPA), and perhaps from people the Tonawanda Coke Corporation. We did have an interview from someone fairly high up at the EPA, but her comments were a little worrying. It sounded very canned, and shows that she’s not particular in touch with what the public needs or wants. I think it would have been helpful and more illuminating to hear from someone who directly worked on the TCC case.

Dr. Edwards presentation from the viewpoint of the authorities is hilarious but very troubling, especially considering the fact when Yanna indicated that it is very common for authorities to react this way in real life. They seem less interested in fixing or even facing undesirable facts, and more interested in distorting fact with their own data and studies which were designed to give the conclusion they wanted to give. When questioned about those data they hide behind bureaucracy. This brings back to one of the point we discussed over the semester, that somewhere along the line, the authorities – whose job is to protect the public – stopped doing their job. I am very confused about this. If they are not doing their job, then what are they doing? It is very perplexing.

Ultimately, the Tonawanda case is still ongoing. It is a little disheartening to me that CACWNY is being legally harassed by TCC lawyers, but looking at their website’s update there remains hope. It is like what my stakeholders had said: Never give up. Never surrender.

A deeply rooted societal problem

When I was interviewing my Tonawanda stakeholder, he expressed the frustration he had with how ethical conduct is influenced by politics. What he meant by that is that he feels that whenever regulatory officials or either elected or politically appointed, they have a pressure to fulfill the agenda of the ones who appointed them or their constituents. In the case of elected officials, my stakeholder alleged that the official may have accepted campaign donation from corporations or people who have an agenda. Elected officials often put the possibility of reelection over his duty to the public in his priorities. This still posts a problem even if the regulatory officials are not elected. Most regulatory agencies (state or federal) has legislative branch oversight. Members of the legislative branch is always elected. In my previous blog post I cited the case where the FAA is essentially powerless if they wanted to push safely features to airline who may deem the new features undesirable in a financial stand point. In that case study, the FAA official stated this is because FAA has congressional oversight, and airlines and the aerospace industries has a considerable sway in congress.

The same problem can be seen with officials who are political appointees. For example, the administrator of USEPA is a cabinet level official appointed by the president of the United States, and confirmed by the senate. Therefore, his interpretation of the ethical obligation of his post will be influenced by those who appointed and confirm him. While the process of the election/appointment of these high-level officials seems intuitive and might make sense from a political point of view, it seems that this election/appointment mechanism might negatively impact the perspective on how they would make public impacting decisions.

My stakeholder attribute this to why every time there’s an ethical violation such as the one in Tonawanda, the public seems to be fighting an uphill battle. I tend to agree with him. The is a deeply rooted societal problem. It would take some kind of revolution to change it.

If today we refuse to do something, what compels us to do it tomorrow?

How do you avoid delusion? It seems to me that a good amount of ethical misconduct originated from lying to oneself. In such a situation, there is a disconnect between the objective reality, and the “reality” he thinks, or perhaps he wish he is experiencing. When we have an unrealistic image of ourselves, yet refuse to admit that it was unrealistic, this prompts us to essentially lie to ourselves to bridge that disconnect. For example, we will convince ourselves that our false self-image is easily attainable. We’ll say to ourselves that, “Tomorrow, everything will be different”, or “Next week, I’ll start doing that next week.” However, it is unrealistic to expect “tomorrow” or “next week” will be any different from today. If today we refuse to do something, what compels us to do it tomorrow?

If we look at the DC water case, the disconnect between realities is clear. Looking at the evidences, it was clear that there were wrongdoings conducted by DC WASA as well as the EPR R3, CDC, and DOH. Yet I hypothesize there pathological (and methodological) lies and coverups to be more than just the fear of taking responsibility. It seems to me that they genuinely believed they had done no wrong. While I am not them I don’t really know what is actually going on in their heads, I believe there must be some form of self-delusion in play there. Perhaps they could be admit they had actually dropped the ball and released harmful substances to drinking water. Which led them to generally deny and refuse to believe any sampling data that shows a high lead concentration. In fact, they design sampling methods that would ensure low lead results. They are both lying to the public, and to themselves. When they see the low lead results from faulty sampling methods, they are able to ignore the method, and accept the results as something that validates their deluded self-image.

Obviously this is all conjecture as I can’t really read anyone’s mind. The reasons why the situation was allowed to happen as it did is probably extremely complex.

Must this be?

In a book I have been reading there was a chapter that discussed plane design. The book went ahead and explained that 80 – 85 percent of plane crashes are potentially survivable. However, this probability is a best case scenario estimate. If during a plane crash, everything occur as it would in a FAA simulation, then a high survival rate such at 80% can be achieved. The problem is that in a real plane crash, passengers often times to not follow proper evacuation procedure. Federal simulations fail to predict human emotional response. As a result, it is rare that people were even able to get the emergency door opened. In the event of such a disaster people usually perish from fire. Planes are generally very flammable because of the amount of fuel it carries. Once the plane is set up fire due to the crash, passenger often succumbs to toxic fumes released by the incineration of plane material. Also, at the impact of the crash, passenger may have broken their legs by slamming them against the front passenger seats. In such a case these passenger can mostly never make it out of the emergency exit. Often times during the panic of a plane crash the passenger would trample over each other, which also lead to a lower survivor rate.

Airlines know all of this, and in fact they know exactly what they need to do to increase the safety of their planes. Installing more emergency exits would absolutely increase the survivability of a plane crash, but this would require removing seats and decreasing revenue. There were proposals and patents for adding sprinkler systems on commercial aircrafts, but this would add too much weight on the plane and thus less passengers can be transported, decreasing revenue. Fuel systems on aircraft can be upgraded to be able to withstand crashes without exploding as most military aircraft fuel systems are, but again this would add too much weight. While the FAA has the power to enforce any safety regulation they want, they do not maximized the safety of an aircraft. In fact, according to the author in the book who interviewed FAA officials, airline safety guidelines are evaluated from a cost-benefit point of view. Essentially, the FAA research and decide a dollar value for a human life, and then compare whether it is “worth it” to enforce more safety features to planes. The assignment of the dollar value mostly related to legal cost if a life was lost on the hands of the airline. For example, a patented should harness was proposed to be added to all passenger seats. These harness, in addition to seat belts, greatly decrease the chance of a body being thrown out of the seat. If a human life was determined to be worth ~3 million dollars (in litigation fees), then in twenty years the airline can potentially save 30 billion dollars if these harnesses can save 15 lives per year. However, the airline would come back and retort that the safety harnesses would cost 60 billion dollars to implement. In such a case the airline would argue that such regulation is not sustainable from a financial stand point.

As we have seen from the DC lead in water case and the Tonawanda coke plant case, regulatory agencies are mostly ineffective in enforcing their policy. In the DC lead in water case, the agencies didn’t even TRY to enforce. But even with the best intentions, regulatory agencies are faced with corporations who may be substantial influence in congress. Congress, on the other hand, usually have oversight authority over regulatory agencies. Corporations are very skillful in analyzing everything from a business stand point. But have we really come to a point where we must put a dollar value on a human life? Must this be?

the freedom to pursue the truth should never be taken for granted

I would like to take a difference approach in this blog entry. Instead of writing about this week’s readings, I would like to talk about a huge engineering project that took place in China, and it’s ethical implication. The Three Gorges Dam was a monumental undertaking, even by the standards of the People’s Republic of China. It spends a mile and a half long across the Yangtze River, and provides enough energy to supply 10% of what China needs. The entire program took 14 years to complete. While it is commendable that China would seek out alternative energy source, it did so with great price. According to a report filed during the dam last years of construction, nearly 40 million tons of sediment is deposited to the Yangtze river due to erosion induced by the dam itself. The state-controlled news bureau reported that erosion due to the Three Gorges Dam had caused frequent severe landslide in the area. The large-scale and long construction period of the dam had a significant negative impact on the wildlife around the area. Natural habitats of endangered species were completely destroyed.

Since the project was so large in scale, there are numerous report regarding engineers cutting corner to save expense. According to a BBC report, cracks as deep as 2.5 m deep were found due to faulty concrete placement. The entire project exceeded twenty-four billion US dollars, not including upkeep costs. While the dam was originally designed not only to provide power, but to relieve flooding around the Yangtze river, numerous engineers and hydrologists stated after the fact the due to erosion and sediment transport, downstream riverbanks may become even more susceptible to major flooding.

The most notorious, and perhaps relevant to human ethical interest is the forced relocation of residents around the dam. Some of these residents were farmers and fishermen who had lived in the villages near the area for generations. Others were forced to abandon their properties they own, where often times they haven’t even finish paying their mortgage. The central government promised compensation, but according to a BBC report many of the relocated residents never received compensation, and are consequently rendered homeless and live in destitute.

I really want to mention this case because it gives us perspective. While it is easy to become depress in this class (which I do) because of strong evidence in which officials in the government fail to do their jobs to protect the public, in other countries where the government is more of a totalitarian flavor things can be much worse. The Chinese government operate in a very different way compared to the US government. The media and journalists are generally under fairly tight control by the central government, which make independent investigation and whistle blowing very difficult. In China, you cannot rise to power in any discipline and business without becoming a member of the communist party. You HAVE to be one of them to exert any meaningful influence to society. Here in the US, at least we have the opportunity and freedom to pursue justice and truth. And while fighting a battle with the federal government is very difficult, it can be done. In China, many of the reports regarding the Three Gorges Dam and its ethical ramification are under very heavy wrap. Almost none of the reports can be confirm. While almost a million residents were forced to uproot their lives, many of them disappear under a vast population of such a huge country. A case like Tonawanda, if happened in China, may simply never surface.

So, I want to say that while this class and its discussion depresses me sometimes, it also gives me hope. It is precisely because there are people like Marc and Yanna, and everyone from CACWNY, and others who engage in street science and would not be silenced, that the truth can be unveiled. We live in a society where there is constantly injustice; the freedom to pursue the truth should never be taken for granted.

So it really is like a catch-22

I am continually astonished by the complexity of ethics. I mentioned earlier that I don’t think about ethics in such a systematic way prior to this class and the readings. This week I must confess the readings were difficult for me, especially the book chapter on normative ethics. I think I am just not used to thinking about ethics in such an explicit and systematic way. Nevertheless, I found the examples the text drew were helpful to me. However, the theories themselves I find hard to take a hold of. Hopefully in class today we can draw a more complete total picture of ethical theories. Normative ethics, seems to concern itself with ethics that requires action, and this is particularly important for engineering ethics. Many ethical decisions made in engineering are inherently normative as engineering is all about doing things and making things. The text raised the infamous Ford Pinto case as an example. As I understand, ethical values are internalized by everyone, until it manifested as actions where it becomes normative. I think normative ethics are particularly important because they directly affect others.

Welp, that’s about as much as I can milk out of that particular book chapter.

Local knowledge is something I’ve been thinking about for the past two weeks. One of the key problem, as Corburn identified, is disconnection between the opinions of the experts, and the experiences of the community. It seems that the opinions of the expert is often given much more weight, whether they merit the weight or not. I suppose experts become experts because 1) They (theoretically) have credential or had proven themselves to have extensive knowledge at their field and 2) Due to their perceived merit the public gave them authority to become experts. So, the public accepts the experts’ opinions at face value because the public themselves had agreed to surrender that authority to the experts. So really what’s happening here is that if the experts decided to abuse that authority, the whole system breaks down. This is because if the opinions of the expert is no longer trustworthy, in order for the public to get to the truth they must first overcome the authority of the experts, which originated from the public themselves. So it really is like a catch-22. On one hand we have to have experts who are authoritative in society because, at least theoretically, the experts sacrifices their time and effort to become an authority in their field so that the public doesn’t have to (nor could the public afford to). On the other hand, this system essentially stack the hand against the public should the experts turn rogue and decides not to serve the public anymore.

I feel that this really puts the burden on the public, as shown by the numerous cases Corburn cited. It seems in order for the public to overcome and get through to any disputing expert the public really need to do extensive work on their own to provide evidence and data. I believe this to be a barrier that kept important work and justice from being done. Perhaps there needs to be a revolution in the expert-public relationship in the future in order for society to evolve to the next level.

take off this engineer hat, and put on this manager hat

One of the most astonishing moment in the mock press conference is that everyone immediately assumed that they had to talk themselves out of the mess. Not one of us came out and admit that our agency just messed up. I represented DCWASA and the more I read “our” internal communications, the more I am just confused on how this whole scandal started. It seems that we knew in 2001 that there was clear evidence that there was elevated lead concentration in the water, yet no one acted appropriately. While I can understand in 2004 the whole situation had snowballed into something unprecedented, where each organization had shifted into “let’s do whatever to save our own ass” mode, I am not sure i understand the motivation in the very beginning where DCWASA had chosen inaction and attempt to cover up.

Watching the video of the press conference is even more infuriating. I shared the same anger Schwartz did when WASA made their first statement. There was no attempt in apologizing, or even acknowledging that there was anything wrong. The promise and statement that WASA would “continue” to share information and be transparent is such a false statement, it was astonishing that the WASA representative was able to deliver the statement with a straight face.

This week’s reading described the role engineers occupied within an organization. Specifically, the textbook addressed the many different characteristics, priorities, and motivations between engineers and managers. One statement that was memorable to me was the managers are not really professionals. Therefore, their primary interests may not be to the welfare of the public, but the welfare of the organization. This is even more intriguing when we look at the case with the Challenger incident. In that case, the manager was also an engineer, and he was specifically told to “take off his engineer hat, and put on his manager hat”, where the engineer/manager immediately changed his recommendation. It was amazing our one would do a 180 on something just based on how he was thinking, with huge consequences.

So, my real question is: it is obvious that the motivation behind ethical violation is very important. But what prompted this? What’s the decision making process?

Engineering Ethics

A bit late in the game as I got completely confused with myself, but this blog post was supposed to go up last week. Anyway.

I’m at a bit of a lost on how to beginning writing about the subject at hand: Engineering Ethics. I recently learned through a personality test (specifically, a Myers-Briggs Type Indicator test) that I verbalize my thoughts. So perhaps I will do so here. I must admit, when I was studying Chemical Engineering at the University of Illinois, the topic never came up. Granted, I didn’t finish the degree as I eventually changed my major to Chemistry, but I stuck with Chemical Engineering till fairly late in the game (specifically, I only needed 4 more class for the degree). So the concept of ethics in engineering, as a subject of itself, never really occurred to me. By this I mean that, I have vague thoughts about how as a professional, it is preferable that I do no harm, be honest in my operation, and have some form of integrity. However, none of these thoughts ever coalesce into a solid concept. I am aware of major incidence where engineering ethics were violated, for example, the Columbia tragedy. However, I never thought about these issues in terms of ENGINEERING ethics per se, only as general ethical issue. I did not understand that there are different types of ethics. I feel that most people, including myself, are awhile of common ethics and personal ethics. Although we may not necessarily label them that way, or even delineate them at all, I think most of us know that stealing and murdering is wrong (common ethics), and most of us have chosen some form of personal ethic views not shared by others.

However, I didn’t give too much thought about the delineation of professional ethics. Now that I did think about it, it seems obvious that different profession would have different ethical focuses. So, it was under this ignorance that I begin to attend this class. Prior to reading some of the course materials and attending the first few weeks of class, I have yet to solidify the idea of ethics specifically for engineers. It is my hope that through this class, I can clearly define what an ethical engineer is, such that I can hold fast to that ideal.