Center for Instructional
Innovation and Assessment


Brian Burton
Janice Lapsansky
Jeff Newcomer
Portfolio Contents
Portfolio Resources
Jeff Newcomer
Engineering Technology Department



Engineering Ethical Decisions


This is a description of how professional ethics is integrated into curricula in the Engineering Technology Department at Western Washington University. I use the term 'we' throughout the essay, because this has been a team effort. I have taught all but one of these courses, and did play a significant role in the revision of these classes, including the integration of ethics, but I did not, and could not have done it alone. I would especially like to acknowledge Professors Kathy Kitto and Barbara Sylvester for their work, for without their efforts in these classes none of this would have happened.

Integrating Ethics into Engineering Technology Curricula

"Our approach examines professional ethics in context in several lower- division Engineering Technology courses where students can explore ethical issues in depth. This gives students the opportunity to place ethics in a technical context without compromising technical content mastery."

Teaching ethics to engineering technology and other technical students presents faculty with a dilemma: how do we devote sufficient time to teaching ethics without taking the topic out of context and potentially "ghettoizing" it? In the Engineering Technology (ETec) Department at Western, we use a two-prong, multifaceted approach to introduce students to ethical issues, resources, and solution methods. The first prong involves courses in which ethics can be discussed in the context of the technical concepts taught in the course; the second involves an upper-division course, Engineering and Society, which combines ethics for engineering technology and technical communication. Our approach examines professional ethics in context in several lower-division Engineering Technology courses and then provides a course where students can explore ethical issues in depth. This gives students the opportunity to place ethics in a technical context without compromising technical content mastery. Students complete most of the breadth courses first, which helps them develop a solid foundation in ethics as part of professional expectations, and allows them to achieve a more complete understanding in the depth course, Engineering and Society.

Our basic tools for putting ethics into a technical context are professional codes of ethics and case studies. Almost all engineering and related technical societies have a professional code of ethics, but since our students are intending to go into a variety of careers, we rely on the National Society of Professional Engineers (NSPE) code of ethics. The Fundamental Canons for the NSPE Code of Ethics are:

Engineers, in the fulfillment of their professional duties, shall:

  1. Hold paramount the safety, health and welfare of the public.
  2. Perform services only in areas of their competence.
  3. Issue public statements only in an objective and truthful manner.
  4. Act for each employer or client as faithful agents or trustees.
  5. Avoid deceptive acts.
  6. Conduct themselves honorably, responsibly, ethically, and lawfully so as to enhance the honor, reputation, and usefulness of the profession.

There are also Rules of Practice and Professional Obligations that follow the Fundamental Canons. We use this code to help the students understand the expectations and professional responsibilities that come with the job of engineer.

To add context and meaning to the professional codes of ethics we make use of case studies throughout the various courses. The case studies not only highlight links between professional expectations, in terms of ethical choices and technical decisions, they also pique student interest. Following is an outline of how we have integrated ethics into our courses, in the order in which most students take these courses.

Using Cases in the "Breadth" Courses

CitiCorp Tower. Photo credit: Carter B. Horsley,
The City Review

The first course in all of the programs in the ETec Department is Engineering Design Graphics (EDG) I. The purpose of the course is to introduce students to the design process, the communication of design ideas through graphics, and computer-aided design (CAD). In addition to these topics, we also introduce students to the fundamental canons of the NSPE code of ethics. To link the code of ethics to appropriate behavior, we introduce students to the actions of both Roger Boisjoly before and after the space shuttle Challenger explosion and William LeMessurier during the design and repair of the Citicorp Tower in Manhattan. Even though only one of these men was actually able to solve the problem before an accident occurred, in both of these cases the individuals involved followed appropriate courses of action for pursuing an ethical problem with a technical system. These cases are very effective, even though most of our students are now too young to have witnessed the Challenger explosion. Most students have also never heard of the Citicorp Tower problems. It has a unique design that turned out to be vulnerable to certain types of wind conditions, the type which Manhattan can expect to see, on average, every seventeen years. As a result, the building needed to have a large number of stiffening elements added in order to make it rigid enough to withstand the load conditions it was expected to see during its lifetime.

Space Shuttle Challenger. 1986. Photo courtesy of NASA

Students in four of the six programs in the ETec Department take Introduction to Engineering Materials (IEM) within a year of taking EDG I. IEM is an introduction to the fundamentals of materials science, so the course uses case studies to explore the relationship between material selection, organizational behavior, and professional ethics. The three case studies used in the course are the space shuttle Challenger explosion, the space shuttle Columbia crash, and the collapse of the World Trade Center (WTC) towers. The WTC case has enough forensic evidence available to highlight how material properties change under different environmental conditions (e.g. how the properties of steel change with temperature). The shuttles, conversely, are rich examples of how materials choices made by responsible engineers can lead to disaster when the organizational system does not function properly. By the end of the course, the students grasp the concept of personal responsibility and, perhaps more than they want to, they see a picture of the complex world of engineering design and all the ethical issues that surround it.

Kansas City Kyatt Regency Walkways Collapse. Photo used with
permission from Dr. Lee Lowery, Jr., P.E., Texas A&M

Almost all of the students who take Introduction to Engineering Materials begin our introductory engineering structures sequence either concurrently with IEM or immediately afterwards. The structures sequence is made up of two courses: Applied Engineering Statics (AES), which is an introduction to the loads on rigid structures, and Strength of Materials (SoM), which is an introduction to the effects on the parts of rigid structures, in terms of stresses and deflections due to the loads on them. Case studies in these two classes are used to highlight issues of safety, competence, and thoroughness of design, and also to reinforce the analytic methods that students learn in the courses. Although structural failures are almost always the result of multiple problems, the problems are often very basic, so even beginning students can often fully comprehend where the designers went astray. There is only one case that fits the first course, AES, well, and that is the Kansas City Hyatt-Regency walkway collapse. In this case the construction firm changed the design without doing an analysis of the load paths, and thus doubled the loads on some of the supports. The problems, however, really originated with the designers, who developed a design that was ridiculously difficult and expensive to manufacture, and lacked redundancy. The designers did not complete a thorough analysis of the design, much less the redesign. There are more issues with this case as well, but they have to wait for the second course in the sequence, Strength of Materials.

Hartford Civic Center. Photo Credit: Trinity College

The Hyatt-Regency walkway collapse is one of a minimum of four cases that we always use in Strength of Materials. The designers in this case specified a joint design that was vulnerable to local deflection and failure. Once students have begun to examine topics in stress and deflection due to bending, they can discuss the actual design and design alternatives that would likely have prevented the walkway collapse. The other three cases we routinely use are the Kemper Arena roof collapse, the Quebec City Bridge collapse, and the Hartford Civic Center roof collapse. The Kemper Arena roof collapsed when water pooled on the building during a thunderstorm. The water was able to pool past the maximum design depth due to poor deflection analysis, and the excess weight resulted in a collapse because the construction method resulted in critical bolts weakening due to fatigue. This case helps students understand deflection and introduces them to the concept of fatigue failure. The other two cases, the Quebec City Bridge and the Hartford Civic Center, both have the same failure mechanism: buckling. Buckling is a loading condition in which a thin structural member in compression suddenly bows, thereby causing its immediate failure, which is usually followed rapidly by the failure of the entire structure. In both cases the designers made bad assumptions during load analysis, developed a design that was difficult or impossible to construct, and ignored repeated warning signs in the form of unintended deflections of the structure. Yet, despite the similarities, there are also a number of differences in the two cases. Together they help students understand the analysis of buckling and also the types of engineering errors that can lead to a major structural failure.

The final class in the breadth sequence, Manufacturing Ergonomics, Safety, and Health (MESH) is different from the courses discussed to this point, in that it has a smaller audience and does not use case studies in the same manner as the other courses. MESH is a course for Manufacturing Engineering Technology majors, although it is sometimes taken by other students as an elective; it is both smaller and more focused toward a specific field. Ethics, starting with both the NSPE and Society of Manufacturing Engineers (SME) codes of ethics, represent one of the justifications for implementing ergonomic and safety programs in manufacturing facilities. As such, the course starts with a discussion of the basis for implementing ergonomic and safety programs, including ethics, and then these ideas remain underlying concepts throughout the course. Case studies with direct ethical implications are not used consistently in the course as examples, but students are required to complete an accident summary and analysis as one of their assignments. As part of the analysis in this assignment, students are asked to assess behavior relative to both Occupation Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) codes and acceptable professional behavior, if engineers were involved in or responsible for the accident. Based on their comments, this assignment makes a strong impression on many students, especially concerning the disregard that some people have for the safety of themselves or their co-workers.

Getting in Depth

Race car

In all of the courses I have discussed up to this point professional ethics is integrated into the technical material, but it is not the prime focus of any of the courses. This approach helps students understand that professional ethics is a fundamental aspect of engineering just as analysis is, but it does not allow them to discuss or explore ethical issues in any depth or detail. The course in which students finally get to explore professional ethics in depth is Engineering and Society. This course combines technical writing and engineering ethics. The course is team taught, and it is writing intensive, which means that 75% of the grade comes from written assignments.

The ethics portion of the Engineering and Society course is organized into six discussion modules and a set of student presentations and it is linked to the writing portion of the class through several assignments. Case studies are used throughout the discussion modules. For the presentations, students research and report on a case, highlighting the lessons from the case.

  1. The first module is an exploration of what it means when we say that engineering is a profession, and a study of why engineering failures occur. To add context to this discussion, we look at the NSPE code of ethics in more detail (i.e. beyond the fundamental canons), and use them to re-examine the Hyatt-Regency walkway collapse.
  2. The second module is a discussion of ethical theories and the development of a heuristic approach to solving ethical dilemmas that parallels the engineering design process. The case we generally use to supplement this discussion is a theoretical case about a racing team with a car that might be too dangerous to race. Students discuss the issues surrounding the car and then develop a few options for trying to address the safety issues in a way that is likely to be accepted by the rest of the team.
  3. The third module is a discussion of engineering as social experimentation, which is a model for how engineers often push boundaries in the development of new designs, and how this might be accomplished responsibly. As part of this discussion, we revisit the Challenger and Citicorp Tower cases, but we examine the actions of the engineers in more detail and consider the criticisms as well as the praise.
  4. The fourth module is a discussion of risk, uncertainty, and the scope of an engineer's responsibility as he or she designs for safety. For this discussion we look at the issues surrounding the Ford Explorer. This is an especially interesting case from my perspective, because it is on-going and there is often new information to consider.
  5. The fifth module is a discussion of environmental and global issues. In this discussion we consider both the Love Canal story and the chemical leak in Bhopal, India. There are several parallels in the behaviors and attitudes towards the risks involved in these two cases.
  6. The final module, which happens near the end of the class after the student case study presentations, is a discussion of workplace rights and responsibilities, including whistle blowing. In this discussion we look at the DC-10 cargo door design and subsequent problems, and also try to tie together many of the other cases discussed in the class, including the ones that the students presented.
Ford Pinto Gas Tank Fire.
Photo used with permission from Safety Forum.

The case study presentation is the major ethics-focused assignment in the class. For this assignment, students select an engineering failure or near failure case study that they research and present to the rest of the class. From an ethics standpoint, students are responsible for drawing their own conclusions about the cases, and then they must organize and present their evidence to justify their claims. Students are given a list of about 70 different cases, and they are also free to propose their own. Some of the cases are very cut and dried, such as the Ford Pinto gas tank fires or the Chernobyl meltdown, but many, such as the Tacoma Narrows Bridge collapse, the Comet 1 fuselage failures, or the Chevrolet Corvair, leave students room to draw their own conclusions. In preparation for this assignment, I give formal presentations on the Apollo I fire and the near meltdown at Three Mile Island. For their part, students prepare both a 10-minute presentation and a 1-2 page written summary. The goals of the assignment are to get students to reach and support conclusions regarding the main lesson or lessons of the case, and also to get them to be very clear and direct in how they present their theses.

In addition to the ethics presentation, students complete several other assignments that tie the ethics and writing portions of the class together. In preparation for each of the discussion modules, students answer an essay question based on the assigned reading for the day. The goal of these essays is to get students to come to the discussion prepared, and to get them into the habit of writing with a very concise style. Students also examine some of the memos written during the investigation of the space shuttle solid rocket booster o-rings before the Challenger explosion. Students then rewrite one of the memos to improve its clarity. Finally, students also write a set of machine instructions, and we ask them to select a machine that has the potential to do harm to the user if proper procedures are not followed. This way, students have to consider and appropriately address safety issues for a novice user.

Tying it all Together

"While we use established methods for
teaching professional ethics, we
believe that providing the students
with multiple exposures to prefessional
ethics, always firmly embedded in or
strongly related to a technical context,
gives students a deeper understanding
and appreciation for the important of
professional ethics to their careers."

Engineering and Society is the last class that most students in the ETec Department take that has a formal ethics component, so in this sense the course is kind of an ethics capstone experience (see student comments). Students in some majors usually take Engineering and Society shortly before graduating, while students in other majors must still complete a senior project before graduating. Students whose major requires a senior project are required to address any ethical, social, environmental, or safety issues as part of their proposal and final report, but I'm happy to say that students rarely find themselves facing serious ethical dilemmas as part of their senior projects. Students who are Manufacturing Engineering Technology majors read and discuss a case in their senior level Manufacturing Automation and Robotics course that examines the development of an automation system. One of the considerations in the discussion of the case is how well the behavior of the engineers involved measures up to the expectations in the NSPE code of ethics.

Overall we have been pleased with our ethics program. We believe that a approach that combines repeated opportunities is an appropriate and effective structure for teaching technical students topics that they do not readily expect to be integral parts of their education. Setting the early foundation with introductions to professional ethics in the context of technical classes accomplishes two important tasks: it makes the technical classes richer by adding important human and social aspects to the material (which in turn can actually make the technical information clearer and more meaningful), and it allows students to delve much deeper into the various aspects of professional ethics in their depth course. While we use established methods for teaching professional ethics, we believe that providing the students with multiple exposures to professional ethics, always firmly embedded in or strongly related to a technical context, gives students a deeper understanding of and appreciation for the importance of professional ethics to their careers. Certainly we have room for improvement, and the ethics components of our classes are constantly evolving as we learn more effective methods, and identify more appropriate examples.

↑ Go to top
Return to Portfolio