Teaching Engineering Ethics to Our Engineering Students: The Story of a National Contest
Engineering has a direct and vital impact on the quality of life for all people. Accordingly, the services provided by engineers require honesty, impartiality, fairness, and equity, and must be dedicated to the protection of the public health, safety, and welfare. In this month’s Dr. Z’s Corner article, we’ll discuss a real-world case study in ethics and how we use this opportunity as a tool to teach engineering ethics to our engineering students. I still remember the joy of team UDC, with my late colleague and friend Philip Brach (Phil), winning another prestigious national competition. The contest was about ethics, sponsored by the National Society of Professional Engineers (NSPE) and titled “2007 Milton F. Lunch Ethics Contest.”
A civilized society requires acceptable habits and customs if it is to survive anarchy. Historically the prohibitions of unacceptable practices were through the sanction of either law or religion. Less serious offenses were usually dealt with by socially ostracizing the offender. Today our customs are divided into moral or ethical issues. Dan H. Pletta defined morals as the principles or the standards of right or wrong conduct involving voluntary action, and ethics, as the study of human actions regarding right or wrong.
An engineer is a critical player in any modern technological society. His or her values, and how he or she participates in the global economy, is and will be a critical component of the well being of our society. As engineering educators, we have an important role to play in forming the “ethical values” of the engineers of the future and tempering them in the application of ethics regards to their practice of the engineering profession.
Here we’ll focus on that aspect of acceptable human behavior known as ethics: precisely, the ethical behavior expected of engineers in the practice of their profession.
Each year NSPE announces a question of ethics. Engineering students and engineers have the opportunity to answer the question and submit their arguments in support of their answers to the question. There is a $1000 prize to those that submit the best analysis and defense.
As an instructor, we first present the case to the students and explain the facts. Then, the students are assigned the task of determining which sections of code might be relevant to the ethical issue in question. Then collectively, a discussion among the students is held in class to arrive at a consensus of which canons will be used to determine the ethics of the case and to defend their answer to the question.
The following is the summary of a response that was submitted by our engineering students at UDC to the 2007 Milton F. Lunch Annual Ethics Contest. Our students made us proud again and won the 1st Prize.
Ethics Contest Question
A licensed engineer (Engineer A) advertised on his website that he would “seal” drawings for a fixed price. Is this action ethical or unethical?
Our senior class found this ad to be unethical as did the NSPE Committee.
The NSPE Code of Ethics indicates under professional obligations, “Engineers shall conform with state registration laws in the practice of engineering” (III.8a). The question here is, to which state is he going to conform, if his service is designed to meet with every local or state requirement. This is impossible to accomplish as regulations and laws differ from one state to another. Therefore, in this case, Engineer A’s website is an exaggeration of his ability to provide services in areas where he is not licensed.
Not only that, the website’s claim is unethical because Engineer A is charging a nominal fee for sealing any project and this is not right. Because it is impossible to know how much work is required to perform a thorough review of the required documents to assure that they conform to every applicable engineering standard. Engineer A also overlooks the potential for complicated designs in pursuit of attracting customers, which could lead to unsafe consequences. The Code of Ethics states “Engineers shall not promote their own interest at the expense of the dignity and integrity of the profession (III.1.e).
It is important to realize that right or wrong is an essential aspect of behavior, however in our class on ethics our primary goal was to expose the students to a process for arriving at an ethical decision. As with the adage, “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” so also is the issue of ethics, a function of culture and background.
As engineering educators, our goal should be to ensure that our students have experienced the process of critically examining their professional behavior in accordance with the established ethical norms.
Until next time,
Ahmet Zeytinci (Dr. Z.)
Amazing Success Stories from Dr. Z’s Students at The University of the District of Columbia and George Mason University
We hope our readers had an enjoyable and productive summer. For us September means the beginning of another exciting academic year. We truly enjoy being “Engineering Educators” since we are continuously working with young minds, inspiring, motivating and most importantly educating them to become our future engineers.
For this month’s ASCE-NCS newsletter article, I’ve decided to share some amazing success stories of my students both at UDC and GMU. As you may already know, nothing gives us educators more joy than talking about our students’ success stories. For this article I’ve picked six amazing students among five hundred.
Victoria Church, unquestionably Dr.Z’s best student at UDC. She transferred from UVA, is the heroine of UDC’s Steel Bridge victory, and is the driver of UDC’s MARS ROVER of NASA’s Human Exploration Rover Competition. Victoria wrote “Dr.Z. thank you so, so much for supporting my Structural Engineering education and for being a HUGE ADVOCATE for me. You helped instill confidence in myself that I will take with me to my new job at Jacobs.” According to rumors, Victoria’s starting salary made some young colleagues envious! Good luck Victoria! You’ll be a great engineer; don’t forget your alma mater and keep making us proud. Also, it is not too early to start working for your PE exam. Let us know if you need any help.
Mutlu Gunduz, one of my BEST students at GMU who took my CEIE-400 class there wrote, “ I have a great news for you Dr. Z. Yes, I have CONQUERED my FE exam on my first try. I cannot tell you how happy I am. First I was a little nervous but having Dr. Z in my corner made all the difference. In the exam, on several questions, your well known “Guerrilla Methods” made all the difference and I easily solved them in no time. Even though a thousand words of gratitude would not be enough, I still want to say again, THANK YOU VERY MUCH Dr. Z. for your time, effort, and mentorship. By the way let me know when you are free. Because Starbucks coffee will be on me this time, as I promised.” We wish Mutlu good luck! We’ve already told him to start preparing for his PE exam immediately. Mutlu has our phone number; our commitment to our students is not for a semester, but for life.
Sandae Tait, one of our star students at UDC, took the FE exam while taking our FE Prep class (CVEN 418) at UDC and CONQUERED it on his first attempt. Yet, Sandae’s success story didn’t end there. He applied to COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY for his graduate studies in Civil Engineering and in May 2019 he received a full scholarship. We wish him good luck.
Samantha Babbitt, one of our best students in CEIE-400 classes at George Mason CONQUERED her FE exam on her FIRST try. Samantha sent us a note (including Mr. Simmons) and said “Your techniques and GORILLA formulas saved me lots of time in the exam. Also, your calculator shortcuts saved me a ton of time which we learned in your classes. Thank you.” I am glad our instruction and tools in CEIE-400 helped her to conquer her FE exam on her first try. We wish Samantha all the best.
Stacey Lockerman was UDC ASCE Student Chapter president and another star student from UDC. I met her first time back in 2013 as a Mechanical Engineering major in my Intro to Engineering freshman class. Immediately I knew that she was a very special student. At the end of that semester Stacey decided not only to switch to Civil Engineering but also decided to attend to our pro-bono Saturday classes for FE and PE exams at UDC. Back in 2013 she wrote “Dr. Z. Having just begun college this semester, I still have a long way to go, but for fun I already try to construct my own formulas based on different topics. When it comes to being creative, I am always trying to come up with new ideas by thinking of ways things can be done differently or looking at things from a different viewpoint.” In May 2019, Stacey graduated from UDC and received a full scholarship from COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY. We wish Stacey all the best. She will be a great Civil Engineer.
Mera Shabti was a STAR student in our CEIE-400 class at George Mason. On March 29 and 30, Mason’s Student Chapter of the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) and the Sid and Reva Department of Civil, Environmental and Infrastructure Engineering (CEIE) at GMU hosted the annual ASCE Virginia’s Conference and various competitions were organized. Amazingly, Mera was the 1st PLACE WINNER at Marr Technical Paper Competition, Hardy Cross Competition, and Geotechnical Challenge GMU Team. Department Chair Prof. Sam Salem and ASCE faculty advisors Profs. Liza Durant and Doaa Bondok provided guidance and support throughout the competition. We wish Mera all the best. She will definitely be a great Civil Engineer.
Until next time,
Ahmet Zeytinci (Dr.Z.)