Engineers Meet the Real World: Engineering Ethics

A couple years back I took a class that changed the way I view people, my career, and the world.  Surprisingly it was an engineering ethics class.  I say surprisingly because most of the ethics classes I have taken in the past were awful.  The professors would lay out a scenario that had an ethical component and then tell you what the right thing to do was.  These classes were boring, routine, and even worse they did not prepare me at all for ethical situations I may face in my career.  I felt like since I was a good person I could easily avoid unethical behavior by simply following my gut.  This is a common feeling in engineering students (and maybe engineers at any level) and now I know this is wrong!

The class I took at Virginia Tech with Dr. Marc Edwards and Dr. Yanna Lambrinidou was very different and changed everything I felt about ethics in engineering.  What made this class so different was the approach they took in teaching it.  They did not give made up scenarios and tell us what the right way to handle it was.  They gave real cases and the made us put ourselves in the engineers’ situation and made us draw our own line for what was “right” and “wrong”.  They did this with a lot of passion because they both were closely involved in our main case study.  Dr. Edwards worked hard to expose wrong doings by Washington D.C. engineers when high lead levels were discovered in the drinking water.  You can read more about that here.  By approaching ethics in this manner, it became very clear that the “right” and “wrong” action can be very hard to discern when actually in a bad situation.  No engineer wakes up in the morning thinking that they will poison a bunch of kids in the city that they serve or help cover such things up, but that’s exactly what they were doing.  After taking this class, I can no longer think that just because I am a good person I will do the right thing, I just hope more than anything that if I find myself in a situation I will be able to recognize unethical behavior and have the courage to do something about it.

It is rare to take a class that completely changes how you look at the world and that’s exactly what this class did.  It is so important that not only engineering students, but every student has a similar experience to transform their view of ethics.  For this reason, I think it is important to have some sort of ethics training in every class that is taught.  This is a great way to incorporate real world scenarios into any course, and highlight applications and importance of other course objectives.

Former students Dr. Sheldon Masters and Dr. Paramjeet Pati in the Environmental and Water Resource Department taught Into to Environmental Engineering last year and decided to implement an ethics module.  The module was basically a mini version of Dr. Edwards’ ethics course.  They were presented with case studies of local, environmental and public health disasters and had to empathize with all stake holders (public, engineers, etc).  They surveyed their students before and after the course, as well as surveying students in the same course without the ethics module.  Here were their results:


That’s right!  The students felt LESS prepared for ethical challenges!!  So the class failed right? WRONG! As Sheldon and Param explained while presenting this at a conference in June, the students went from not knowing they didn’t know, to knowing they didn’t know.  The same transformation I had in Dr. Edwards’ class.  This illustration taken from their slides gives a great visual:


Therefore, having the students realize that they did not know enough about ethics is an important step to learning.  Not only that, but it spiked their interest (see below).


I’d call that a success!  Get students in touch with real world scenarios of the coursework, change their thinking about ethics by making them question their ability to handle tough situations, and peak their interest in related topics.  From a pedagogical perspective, it’s a win, win, win.


Pictures and information from:

Paramjeet Pati, Sheldon Masters, Peter Vikesland.  Incorporating ethics into undergraduate environmental engineering course increases students’ ‘conscious icompetence’ and awareness of ethics issues.  Oral presentation at: 2015 AEESP Research and Education Conference; 2015 Jun 13-16; New Haven, CT.

Category(s): GEDI

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