NSPE Code of Ethics Helps Make ‘Exemplary’ Ethics Programs

May/June 2016

On Ethics
NSPE Code of Ethics Helps Make ‘Exemplary’ Ethics Programs

The NSPE Code of Ethics is helping to strengthen college and university ethics education.

A recent publication from the National Academy of Engineering’s Center for Engineering Ethics and Society highlights engineering programs that are excelling at connecting ethics to technical engineering curricula, to help students prepare for professional practice. Two university programs are using the NSPE Code in their efforts.

Northeastern University

Multiyear Engineering Ethics Case Study Approach

The goal of the Northeastern University program, which is required for all civil engineering undergraduate students, is to ensure that students are aware of ethical professional behavior and can recognize when situations may require ethical assessment. This is accomplished through a vigorous case study approach and engagement with current practicing engineers. The multiyear program provides the tools and strategies for students to develop solutions to ethical dilemmas that uphold the health, safety, and welfare of the public and environment and honor the profession.

Students review case studies, identify ethical conflicts, and determine the best responses and course of action. The cases are evaluated using the NSPE Code of Ethics and codes from other professional societies. Students realize that ethical dilemmas don’t always have “clean outcomes,” and the review process also seeks to bolster engineering technical problem-solving skills and foster creative solutions leading to better outcomes.

“The hierarchy of the Code of Ethics is really helpful to students just beginning to think about the concept of professional ethics. Black and white ethical decisions are easy to make—you know what you should do, and you just need to decide if you’re going to do that or not. But most situations that merit ethical decision-making are more nuanced. There may be a number of interrelated issues to consider, and consulting the Code can help weigh the level of importance of the various issues. Public safety is held in higher regard than client trust, which in turn is held in higher regard than personal or engineering firm prestige.

The mere presence of the Code lets students know that they will not be alone in facing these problems. Others have gone before them and wrestled with ethical concepts. They will soon be joining a community of engineers, finding their way together as a profession.”

— Daniel Saulnier, P.E., coordinator, Department of Civil & Environmental Engineering co-op program

University of Wisconsin–Madison

Team Ethics Assignment: Based on Engineering Student Co-op Experience

The goal of the UW–Madison course assignment is to allow students to reflect on their internships and cooperative work experiences in order to learn how ethical dilemmas can occur in workplace situations and how to work through these conflicts in a team setting. The course was selected as “exemplary” because it uses students’ experiences to address real-life problems. Instructors believe that the course assignment will help students prepare for the ethical challenges that they will face while improving leadership skills.

In this assignment, students work in small groups to pick the most compelling, troubling, or complex ethical dilemma. They write up a case and give a presentation with a minimum of three options to resolve the issue. They also develop a plan to communicate their solutions to various stakeholders. Students “test” the options presented using the NSPE Code of Ethics and another ethical decision-making model, asking the following questions:

  • Utilitarian test: Does this option do the greatest good for the greatest number of people?
  • Publicity test: Would I want my choice of this option published in the newspaper?
  • Reversibility test: Would I still think the choice of this option is good if I or someone I loved were one of those adversely affected by it?
  • Universality test: If everyone confronted with this kind of problem were to make this kind of decision, would that produce the sort of world we would all want to live in?
  • Rights ethics test: Does this option trample on anyone’s rights? If so, is there anything that can be done to mitigate the incursion on individual rights?
  • Consequentialist test: Would there be potential long-term negative impacts of this option?
  • Professional test: What might my profession’s ethics committee say about this option, particularly if they were to consult the code of ethics in my profession?

“I am using the NSPE Code of Ethics for undergraduate engineering students because many of them will go off to co-ops or internships where they will be put in charge of testing or designing technologies, and sometimes they see things at that level that really must be brought to a supervisor’s attention. I have many stories from students who have returned from co-ops and internships having experienced high-pressure situations where they felt they had to choose between their own job security (and the company’s profits) and ‘doing the right thing.’”

— Laura Grossenbacher, director of technical communication, Engineering Professional Development department

Access the publication Infusing Ethics into the Development of Engineers at www.nae.edu.