Applied Ethics in Engineering Practice

Applied Ethics in Engineering Practice

BY RONALD E. BUCKMAN

The technical education provided by most accredited engineering schools in this country is very good to excellent. However, awareness of engineering practice pitfalls and an understanding of how they can be avoided is taught in very few schools at the present time, and for good reason. While engineering faculty are well versed in technical areas, with the current emphasis on technical research, most faculty members have kale or no experience working as a project manager in a professional engineering organization. As a result, they are not cognizant of the professional practice problems which can arise on a daily basis and therefore are not equipped to teach students how to recognize and mitigate these issues.

In 1992, in response to the demand from the practicing engineering community, the Institute for Professional Practice, with support from the General Electric Foundation, sponsored the development of a full course curriculum called Issues in Professional Engineering Practice. The Institute for Professional Practice is a nonprofit organization originated to focus on professional practice education in the engineering community. The intent of the course is to draw upon practicing engineers and allied professionals to assist engineering schools in raising the student level of awareness regarding potentially disruptive non-technical issues in professional engineering practice. It was developed by Dr. Ronald Bucknam, who recently retired from full-time consulting practice after almost 30 years of experience in professional engineering practice and is now at the University of Washington.

The course material is organized to parallel the progress of a project through a design firm or agency. The spectrum of topics ranges from types of engineering organizations, marketing professional services, propose preparation, and types of engineering services contracts through the basics of project management and team building to limitation of professional liability and other loss prevention techniques, alternative dispute resolution, and the climate, process and cost of being sued.

Also included are sections on professionalism and the responsibility of the engineer to society, as well as in-depth discussions of engineering ethics applied to common day-to-day incidents likely to be encountered in practice. These issues are presented in the form of case histories (sanitized to eliminate the identities of those involved), based on the experiences of the course author and a number of engineers nationally. The videotape "Gilbane Gold," produced by NIEE and dealing with an ethical situation in engineering practice, is a recommended resource for this section.

The Issues Course lecture notes and instructional materials have now been requested by more than 300 faculty at 210 accredited engineering and engineering technology programs in the United States, five Canadian provinces, England, Wales, Columbia, Australia, South Africa, Botswana, India and Austria. In addition, a number of individual firms, agencies and professional engineering societies have requested copies of the course materials for use in in-house training programs or professional development programs for practicing Engineers.

When this course was developed it was assumed that students in engineering schools today know and understand the differences between right and wrong, as part of their primary and secondary education, family upbringing and religious training. Unfortunately, experience in teaching the Issues course and reports from other instructors at various institutions around the country appear to indicate that this basic premise was unfounded.

Preliminary research into the factors affecting the behavior of young people (and some not so young people) in our present societal environment point to the deterioration of the family unit, decreasing focus on religious values, abdication of responsibility, over-liberalized education programs such as Outcome Based Education, and increased emphasis on self gratification and personal aggrandizement as primary influences. As a result, distortion of reality in the news media, lack of truth in advertising, unethical practices in business, increased emphasis on litigation to solve differences of opinion, and the decimation of long-held moral and sexual standards have become commonplace and tacitly accented by society.

On the other hand, society in general tends to hold the professions, especially the engineering profession, to a elevated standard, and expects practicing engineers to perform on an higher ethical plane. This justifiable expectation is creating a dilemma for engineering students and the young practicing engineer, since most of the enduring bulwarks of moral and ethical decision making are being mocked and abandoned, and young people are not being equipped with the absolute value judgments required to distinguish right from wrong.

As a result, a new instructional module entitled Applied Ethics in Engineering Practice is being developed by Dr. Bucknam in cooperation with the Institute for Professional Practice and the General Electric Foundation to provide engineering students and young practicing engineers with an understanding of the factors impacting ethical decision making in engineering practice, an ability to discern right from wrong in cases of apparent ethical dilemma, and methods for making proper decisions and achieving ethical results in such situations. It is not the intent of the course to focus on more expansive ethical dilemmas, such as global warming, the O-ring problems on the Challenger, or the pollution caused by the Love Canal. Rather, the emphasis is on the day-to-day, sometimes stomach-wrenching issues most often confronting engineers in industry, government and private practice.

This module will consist of a set of outline lecture notes, with appropriate reading references, a wide spectrum of case histories contributed by engineers in industry, public agencies and private practice around the country, and sample class exercises for use in existing engineering classes, such as courses on project management, ethics or professional practice issues, or in senior capstone design courses. Alternatively, the new course material will be appropriate for a complete course on applied ethics in engineering. It is intended that these course materials will be applicable to all major engineering disciplines, including mechanical, industrial, electrical, chemical, civil and aeronautical engineering.

A non-convening board of commentators and reviewers is being established to lend assistance regarding the focus and content of the course as it is developed. This board will consist of 50 to 60 geographically distributed engineers and executives in industry; active and retired engineers in private industry and government; representatives of professional societies; engineering, business and philosophy faculty; active and retired commercial businessmen; medical professionals; and clergy. Open communications will be maintained with the board and others interested in the course so that the materials presented can accurately reflect the ethical posture of responsible professionals.

In addition, case histories of ethical confrontations or situations, "sanitized" to protect the identities of the individuals, companies or agencies involved, are needed from engineers in industry, private practice and public agencies, as well as professional societies, to provide a wide diversity of real-world experiences for students and young practicing engineers to focus on.

If you are interested in being a member of the board of comment and review and/or would like to contribute one or more one-page ethical case histories, the Institute for Professional Practice would greatly appreciate your support. Please contact the course author as follows:

Dr. Ronald E. Bucknam, University of Washington