What’s Being Done to Improve Ethics Education at Engineering Schools

Universities are working with IEEE and other organizations

18 May 2017

Recognizing an ethically questionable situation and knowing how to handle it is not always easy. Just ask Volkswagen, whose engineers programmed its diesel cars to turn pollution controls on while being tested and off while being driven normally on the road. Unable to build affordable cars that could meet U.S. emissions standards, engineers were left with no choice but to cheat, according to the new book Faster, Higher, Farther: The Volkswagen Scandal, by Jack Ewing.

If it’s tough for experienced engineers to understand the consequences of their actions, imagine what it’s like for new ones just out of college.

“Incidents like Volkswagen’s have made it clear that we need to continue instilling ethical principles when engineers are still students,” says IEEE Member Burt Dicht. He is director of IEEE Educational Activities’ student and academic education programs, responsible for accreditation activities and developing resources for faculty and students.

“Ethics is much more than right or wrong,” Dicht says. “Today ethics has evolved into an awareness of the societal implications of engineering.”

The National Academy of Engineering’s Center for Engineering Ethics and Society, which is concerned about the need for comprehensive ethics training in schools, held the “Overcoming Challenges to Infusing Ethics Into the Development of Engineers” workshop in January. Educators, lawyers, psychologists, and representatives from a variety of associations were invited to Washington, D.C., to explore the issues and devise ways to help. Dicht attended on IEEE’s behalf.

The Association of American Colleges and Universities, the American Society of Engineering Education, the American Society of Civil Engineers, the Colorado School of Mines, Michigan State University, the National Science Foundation, and the University of Pittsburgh were among the presenters.

The Institute spoke with Dicht about the state of ethics education as described at the workshop, as well as the role IEEE could play.

CHALLENGES AND OPPORTUNITIES

Even though teaching engineering students about ethics is required by ABET—the U.S. accrediting body for academic programs in applied science, computing, engineering, and technology—most schools devote much more time on technical topics, Dicht says. That’s not surprising, he says, as the focus of engineering programs is to produce technically competent graduates as they enter the profession.

But as the recent headlines make clear, engineers should be prepared when they face an ethical dilemma. Instilling an ethical foundation into undergraduate education is the place to start, experts say.

The workshop showed that some programs are doing a fabulous job teaching ethics, according to Dicht. The challenge, he says, is integrating ethics training into the overall program so that it becomes a fundamental component and not just an add-on—which is the most common approach today.

“No doubt there’s resistance to making changes to engineering programs,” he says. “That was a common theme discussed at the workshop.” The real obstacles, he adds, are “not about being against change but revolve around time, resources, and the training and experience of instructors.”

“In terms of time,” he says, “there’s a competing bandwidth between what must be taught versus what’s just nice to have—which is where ethics education sometimes finds itself.” In part, that is because of the amount of technical material that must be covered in a four-year program—which continues to increase. Professors are concerned that their students won’t be able to perform the duties of an engineer.

Although engineering professors are willing to incorporate ethics into the coursework, Dicht reports, in most cases they don’t know where to go for help or resources, which typically are not found in engineering departments.

Training and experience play critical roles as well, he says. Teaching students about the social context of engineering is one aspect of the challenge. But students also need to be taught to recognize an ethically questionable situation and know how to act. Often professors themselves require such training.

“A lot depends on the attitude of the faculty,” Dicht says. “More industry experience often correlates with a stronger emphasis on ethical and societal impacts.”

IEEE’S ROLE

Dicht points out that engineering societies have historically played a critical role in complementing what universities are doing.

“One of the reasons the workshop invited engineering associations was to determine what role they can play,” he says. “We all work together to produce quality engineers. IEEE can add the perspective of the real world and connect students to practicing professionals.”

IEEE can educate the educators, many of whom have spent most or all of their career in academia and are not experienced the industry perspective of ethics problems. And most educators have little time in a jam-packed curriculum to discuss ethical problems.

As a start, Dicht says, sessions on ethics will be added to the IEEE Virtual Workshop Series on Early Career Faculty Development (ECFD), which offers live, Web-based IEEE-sponsored conferences to early-career faculty and graduate students.

The focus of the ECFD virtual workshop on ethics would be to address the obstacles that were presented at the NAE workshop. The overall topic of ethics and the societal impact would serve as the introduction, Dicht says. There also would be sessions on how to incorporate ethical training into existing coursework, where to find training materials and other resources, and how IEEE can partner with universities.

Dicht reported that within IEEE Educational Activities there are a number of experts who can serve as presenters. One bonus of attending the NAE workshop, however, was the opportunity for him to meet other experts. Dicht says he received numerous expressions of interest in supporting the IEEE ECFD ethics workshop and has started to contact those experts. He says he expects to launch the workshop in October.

“I see some great things IEEE can do to partner with universities and have an impact,” Dicht says.

Beyond the faculty training, IEEE’s student branches and student members offer great opportunities for engagement. Challenges and competitions could be created that not only develop technical competencies but also incorporate ethical and societal-impact components. To reach students directly, IEEE could work with companies to set up training and workshop opportunities that address ethics through real-world examples.

“I left the NAE workshop feeling positive that IEEE could be a true partner with universities and industry in improving ethics education,” Dicht says. “I look forward to the opportunities ahead.”

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