Blog 4 – “Binary” Representation of Ethics

In class, we touched a bit on the way ethics is typically taught at the undergraduate level in the engineering. For me, this brought to mind my recent experience taking the FE (Fundamentals of Engineering) Exam. Because of my background, I’m taking this exam later in my career than most students, and perhaps this is causing me to be overly critical of the system. However, I found the treatment of ethics on this exam troubling. In the current format, 7% of the exam is dedicated to “Ethics and Business Practices,” roughly the same amount of space as important technical engineering subjects like fluid mechanics and thermodynamics. However, because the FE exam is a multiple choice test, the questions are by necessity oversimplified. On the exam, students are expected to determine whether the engineer should/shouldn’t do “X” because of reason “Y.” In the reference materials provided, a brief code of ethics appears, and answering the questions correctly generally requires a strict adherence to the letter, rather than the spirit, of these codes.

What impression does this treatment give students of what it means to be an ethical engineer? Further, if the goal of the exam is to determine a student’s ability to succeed in engineering, does correctly answering these questions really demonstrate competency in ethics? Personally, I worry that this gives students the impression that ethical dilemmas are black and white, and that adhering to the code of ethics is generally straightforward. This system also emphasizes negative ethical rules (avoidance of misconduct) over positive ones (what it means to be a good engineer). Is this what we want to teach students who will be designing the bridges, airplanes, and water treatment plants of tomorrow?

What do YOU think? Have you taken the FE exam? Did you feel the treatment of ethics on the exam was adequate? How do you think ethics SHOULD be taught and tested?

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