Adding Ethics To Engineering Education


Editor’s Intro: In 1985 a business survey found that engineers were the highest rated professional on ethics. Politicians, lawyers and doctors were the lowest. Now it is 2006, with lots of development work outsourced to other nations who may have dubious Intellectual Property Rights protection. Who will protect this other than our own professional standards? This discussion on ethics in the engineering profession is timely! And for Parallax View readers, we hope, just the beginning! -A.G.-


Imagine this scenario: you’ve just joined a company competing for a government contract to build a military bomber. But the plane would have to fly so fast that it pushes its envelope of safety. The project manager of your engineering team quits because he believes the design is not safe. The company asks you to take over his job. Knowing that your company’s financial future depends on getting this contract, would you give the project the green light or refuse the promotion?

Kevin Passino teaches an engineering ethics class at Ohio State University.

In handling such an ethical dilemma, engineers can’t rely on instinct alone. They need training that can help them balance considerations such as the health, safety, and welfare of the public with technical concerns. Universities are no longer assuming that the new engineer will learn ethics on the job but are now offering instruction on the subject. The IEEE is also playing a role by promoting students’ awareness of their professional responsibilities as engineers. In fact, the scenario above was presented to contestants in a student ethics competition first held this year by the IEEE Ethics and Member Conduct Committee (EMCC).

Varied Approaches

Not all students welcome the opportunity to learn about ethics. “You get all sorts of reactions, [including] those who think ethics courses are not entirely appropriate to a technical degree. They’ll say, ‘I thought I was studying technology and not the people issues,’” says Kevin Bowyer, an IEEE Fellow who heads the department of computer science and engineering at the University of Notre Dame, in Indiana. “But we try to show them that a lot of the things that go wrong in the workplace have people issues wrapped up in them.”

A requirement that engineering school graduates demonstrate “ethical awareness” was written, in 2000, into the criteria U.S. schools must meet to maintain their accreditation. Since then, the schools have tried different approaches to ethics instruction. A few have made ethics classes mandatory; at others, they are electives. Still others weave ethics discussions into standard engineering courses to achieve what they call ethics across the curriculum.

Texas A&M University, in College Station, and the University of Virginia, in Charlottesville, are among the handful of schools where instruction in engineering ethics is mandatory. First-year engineering students at the University of Virginia, for example, must take an introductory course in the engineering school’s Department of Science, Technology, and Society, where ethics and social issues facing the practicing engineer are discussed. However, the primary focus is on improving the students’ writing and presentation skills.

Teams participate in an IEEE student ethics competition at Rowan University, in Glassboro, N.J.

These skills come in handy in years two and three, when technology is placed within a larger world in such courses as Technology and Social Change in 19th-Century America; Religion and Technology; and Technology, Aggression, and Peace. And in a two-semester course with a thesis, seniors are asked to examine ethical questions that may crop up when a system is first being designed or a research project is just getting under way. The goal is for students to come away with an ability to recognize and analyze the role that technology plays in important contemporary issues, to appreciate perspectives that differ from their own, and to apply these skills in solving engineering problems. The course also focuses on late-stage ethical issues. These turn up when a system is further along in design—or has already been built.

Many schools offer freestanding ethics courses as electives to fulfill a humanities or writing requirement, while some introduce ethics in the senior year, as, for example, a one-credit section of a required design course. At Texas Tech University, in Lubbock, the faculty is of at least two opinions. Each engineering department has developed its own method of presenting ethics. The civil engineering department, for example, does it in a two-credit-hour engineering ethics course. The electrical engineering department presents seminars and workshops on ethics, but oddly enough, students aren’t obligated to attend.

Teaching Teachers

Some schools believe it best to weave the discussion of ethics into the standard engineering curriculum. But one challenge has been teaching the engineering faculty how to present the topic, with which they may not be familiar, along with the technical material. As Kevin Passino, an IEEE Fellow who teaches a required engineering ethics course at Ohio State University, in Columbus, puts it, “We can jump up and down and say ethics is important [to engineering education], but if there are no faculty willing to teach the subject, it’s not going to happen.” Notes Jimmy H. Smith, director of the Murdough Center for Engineering Professionalism at Texas Tech, “[That’s] why we’ve developed materials to help them discuss ethics.”

Smith, along with instructors at Texas Tech, the Illinois Institute of Technology, Western Michigan University, and Notre Dame, worked to develop teaching materials and to hold workshops for engineering faculty, thanks to grants from the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF). The workshops are aimed at easing the concerns of teachers about conducting ethics discussions or about the difficulty of shoehorning such discussions into already overcrowded syllabi.

Notre Dame’s Bowyer, who also teaches a required ethics course, has led NSF-sponsored workshops such as Teaching Ethics and Computing, so instructors will be comfortable dealing with ethical concepts in their lectures. “I hope it isn’t the case that [a required course] is the only place we talk about this,” he says. “To collect this material for a single course and then not touch on it in any other course sends students the wrong message—that ethical and professional considerations are something that can be compartmentalized.”

The Institute’s Role

The IEEE is doing its part to help improve students’ understanding of their ethical duties as professionals. Last January, the institute introduced the ethics competition developed by the EMCC. The competition provides students with experience in applying these concepts to situations that might arise in the workplace. The competition requires two- or three-person student teams to apply ethical concepts to a case study that focuses on any of several issues: public safety and welfare, conflict of interest, ethical dilemmas related to research, or faulty engineering practice.

The committee provides the materials that set forth the problem and guide the teams in their decision making. Materials include the IEEE Code of Ethics and case studies. The first (and only, to date) competition was held at Rowan University, in Glassboro, N.J., during Region 2’s (Eastern United States) Student Activities Conference in April. [See “Temple University Wins First IEEE Ethics Competition,” July 2005.]

Gerald H. Peterson, a member of the EMCC who helped develop the ethics contest, reports that representatives of nearly all IEEE regions have expressed interest in holding student competitions. Peterson notes too that the contest is applicable worldwide.

Says Member Shreekanth Mandayam, an associate professor of electrical and computer engineering at Rowan, “Such competitions are probably one of the best ways to teach ethics. The contests can be fun; they get students to think creatively, and the students try to win.”

The IEEE also discusses ethics with students at its Student Professional Awareness Conferences, or S-PACs. Organized by student branches, these meetings bring together students and experienced engineers to talk about, among other topics, professional ethics and responsibility, and engineers and public policy.

The S-PAC Web site ( contains information on how to organize such a conference. It also has a list of volunteer speakers organized by topic and region and regional contacts who can be called on for advice. Speakers are available who can deliver talks on topics including “Individual and Corporate Responsibility,” and “Shades of Gray: Practical Solutions to Ethical Dilemmas.”

One such speaker, Walter L. Elden, a life senior member, shared his insights on ethics and the engineering profession earlier this year at S-PACs at the Florida Institute of Technology, in Melbourne, and the University of Central Florida, in Orlando. He says he tries to make the students aware of their responsibility to be more than just “widget designers.” He wants to “focus their attention on how their creations will be used so they will consider, ‘Hey, maybe there are some consequences in design that I haven’t thought about.’”

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