Trusty Guide Helps Students Find Their Way on the Ethical Path

May/June 2019

Trusty Guide Helps Students Find Their Way on the Ethical Path


All-Access Ethics

As the Board of Ethical Review’s case catalog hits the 60-year mark, NSPE has released a major upgrade to its publicly available database of over 600 cases. The entirely unique reference gives full access to practicing engineers, students, educators, researchers, and anyone else who wants to learn more about the dilemmas engineers sometimes face in their work.

The database enables users to search the case catalog based on the topic—such as conflicts of interest or approval of engineering documents—by year, or key words. The database also makes it easy for users to connect the cases to the relevant sections of NSPE’s Code of Ethics for Engineers.

The BER’s decades-long role as an ethical guide for the profession is like no other. Now, these latest search improvements will make access to this wealth of knowledge easier than ever.


For decades, the NSPE Board of Ethical Review has served as a go-to authority on interpreting the often-confusing landscape of engineering ethics, and its fact-based case studies are required reading for anyone in need of a guide. In March, the annual release of new case studies marked the 60th year of opinions, forming an entirely unique catalog of ethics interpretation for the profession.

The cases serve as a guide for not only practicing engineers, but also for students who have yet to face real-world challenges like conflicts of interest, questions of competence, and the engineer’s duty to the public. Along with the NSPE Code of Ethics for Engineers, the case scenarios give students a sneak preview of the sticky situations they are likely to face on the job but without the risk of repercussions.

Teaching Tools

Michael Davis, a senior fellow at the Center for the Study of Ethics in the Professions and a professor of philosophy at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago, sees the cases’ value as teaching tools. The author of Engineering Ethics and Thinking Like an Engineer: Studies in the Ethics of a Profession, Davis started using the case summaries in his engineering ethics course for an essay assignment and even in exam questions. He found that they brought legitimacy to the lessons.

He points out four reasons the case studies are good teaching tools. “First, the situations can’t be dismissed as ‘unrealistic’ or ‘too philosophical,’ which is important for a philosopher teaching engineers, especially in my early days when I didn’t have the reputation I now have,” Davis says. “Second, the opinions in the case summaries offer proof that engineering ethics is, in some sense, objective. Third, the opinions provide a model for how engineers should discuss their profession’s obligations.”

The fourth reason, Davis notes, is that the cases are proof that many engineers care deeply enough about their profession to prepare these scenarios, preserve them, and make them publicly available.

NSPE member Daryl Armentrout, P.E., is an adjunct lecturer at the University of Tennessee and the winner of NSPE’s 2015 Milton F. Lunch Ethics Contest. Armentrout, who worked for the Tennessee Valley Authority, has continued to use his winning entry as a lesson about the sometimes-murky nature of professional ethics.

The case he addressed in his winning entry involved an engineer who serves on a county development agency and co-owns an engineering firm that the county is considering for the development of a business park. The engineer also previously completed work for the owner of the land on which the development will sit.

“In that case, the opinion I shared in my essay was rebutted by several other NSPE members,” Armentrout says. “That just goes to show that not every engineer will agree on the best way to go about a situation where there might be an ethical dilemma. While that might make it more challenging for students, our job as educators is to give them the tools so that they can come to the best possible decision when handling issues in their professional lives that often need to be handled delicately.”

Ethics for All

NSPE member Robert Bach, P.E., started using the case summaries this year at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota, in conjunction with the book Making Ethical Decisions by Michael Josephson. Bach, a clinical professor and director of the master’s program in manufacturing engineering, is using the BER cases in the final capstone courses for the master’s programs in manufacturing engineering and technology management.

“I have weaved BER case summaries as real-world examples in our class discussions about sections of the book,” Bach says. “It’s very important that our grad students who are going to become leaders think about the foundation of ethical behavior in their leadership.”

Bach also believes tools like the BER cases are important when teaching ethics to a diverse group of students from different backgrounds who may have different perspectives and worldviews.

“People have values, but how they go about accomplishing their goals based on their values is where the ethical part comes in,” Bach says. “We have a very diverse student group in our programs. I have five to six students from Saudi Arabia, a student from Lebanon, a student from Libya, a student from Brazil—you might think at a midwestern school like ours that it would be predominantly white males, but because it’s so diverse we try to create a universal atmosphere of understanding, especially around ethics.”

Davis also notes how important it is for young engineers to gain practical knowledge before making a crucial ethical mistake in their careers.

“Experience is a poor teacher, especially when it comes to professional ethics,” Davis says. “It gives the test before the lesson and charges a high price for what it does teach, whether it be the loss of a job, damaged reputation, costly litigation, or the like. A college course is a much better way for engineering students to learn ethics. The tests come after the lessons, and the lessons cover much more material in a more systematic way.”

Amir Alansari is one student who sees the value in BER cases. As an NSPE student member and a doctoral candidate in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, Alansari was the 2018 Milton F. Lunch Ethics Contest winner. Taking part in the contest, he says, was enriching in a number of ways.

“The most rewarding part was knowing that I was being of service to the engineering community and contributing my time and knowledge for the greater good,” Alansari says. “Being a student, I had no idea how complicated ‘doing the right thing’ was in the real world. I realized that almost every case ultimately came down to the engineer to uphold the core values. I had no idea that ethics was such an active part of everyday engineering practice.”

Going ‘Old School’

NSPE established the Board of Ethical Review in June 1954 due to many requests by engineers, state societies, and chapters for interpretations of the Code of Ethics in specific circumstances. The board was composed of seven members serving three-year terms and representing different disciplines and areas of employment. The board was not responsible for evaluating specific violations. Instead, its members analyzed the ethics of the circumstances in real and hypothetical cases.

Since the publishing of the first case in 1958, which involved questionable actions on a World Bank-financed hydroelectric project, the case catalog has grown to 636.

Today’s BER still consists of seven members, representing NSPE’s six regions as well as different disciplines and areas of practice. Two professors represent education (Vincent Drnevich, P.E., F.NSPE, Ph.D., and Jeffrey Greenfield, P.E., F.NSPE, Ph.D.), four represent private practice (Susan Sprague, P.E., F.NSPE; Craig Musselman, P.E., F.NSPE; John Branch, P.E.; and Kenneth McGowan, P.E., F.NSPE), and one represents practice in government (Mark Dubbin, P.E.).

To prepare the 12 new cases that were published in March, BER members met at NSPE headquarters last December. Before the meeting, each BER member was assigned to lead the discussion on two cases. Some of the cases are based on real scenarios submitted by members while others are hypothetical.

Sprague calls the case review, in which the case leader reads the case facts out loud to the group, “methodical” and “old school.” She adds: “It’s amazing how hearing the facts and listening to it being read can offer you a different perspective on the case.”

After the case leader finishes reading the facts, the board members offer their opinions and discuss the case’s merits and ethical conflicts. They cover areas such as the actions of those involved, ethical obligations, and the applicable references to the NSPE Code of Ethics.

“Sometimes we finish discussing a case and reach consensus in 25 minutes,” says Sprague, “and a few have taken over 90 minutes to reach consensus.”

Next Steps for Ethical Education

The board’s work over the decades to bring clarity to difficult situations has provided guidance to many engineers, but it has played a special part in the education of one doctoral student at Purdue University.

In August 2005, when Andrew Katz was beginning his undergraduate studies at Tulane University in New Orleans, BER cases were among the required readings in his introductory courses. At the time, he had no idea that one of the strongest hurricanes in recorded history would shift the course of his career toward a focus on engineering ethics.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Tulane eliminated all engineering programs except those in the biomedical engineering department and the chemical and biomolecular engineering department. “I continued in the chemical engineering program, but the whole ordeal made me more reflective of the role of engineers and engineering education in society,” says Katz, “which led me to thinking about engineers’ responsibilities and how they should make decisions.”

Today, Katz is a doctoral candidate and National Science Foundation Research Fellow in Purdue’s School of Engineering Education. Part of his research includes a quantitative analysis of 620 BER cases, showing how the topics, language, and conclusions have changed over time and how interpretation of the NSPE Code of Ethics has evolved.

“The BER case summaries tend to communicate to their readers what exactly are those standards and expectations of the professional engineering community,” he says. “The case summaries also provide specific examples where something went wrong and what should have been done differently, and I think that level of specificity can be helpful from a teaching and learning perspective.”

His research also includes a dissertation on the state of engineering ethics education, which he says needs more vital tools, like the BER case summaries, for students to gain ethics knowledge before beginning their careers.

“In addition to learning the standards and expectations of their chosen profession, I think young engineers should have the preparation and cognitive tools to reason through scenarios they may face in their developing careers,” says Katz, who will be starting this fall as an assistant professor in the department of engineering education at Virginia Tech. “Depending on how the subject is taught [and learned], I think engineering ethics education can play a pivotal role in helping students to begin developing those tools and thought processes. Does this mean they will be prepared for all the dilemmas they may face? Not necessarily, but I think it is a step in the right direction.”