Power Electronics

Should Engineering Students Take Ethics?

According to its mission statement, the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET) is an organization that “serves the public through the promotion and advancement of engineering technology and applied science education.” One of the stipulations of ABET's Engineering Criteria 2000-2002 is that engineering education courses provide an understanding of professional and ethical responsibility.

Joseph Herkert of North Carolina State University points out that Criteria 2000-2002 also provides for “major design experience based on the knowledge and skills acquired in earlier coursework and incorporating engineering standards and realistic constraints. This includes: economic; environmental; sustainability; manufacturability; ethical; health and safety; social and political.” The Criteria also specifies a need for “a general education component that complements the technical content of the curriculum and is consistent with the program and institution objectives.” Herkert points out that the ethics requirement replaces the one-half year humanities and social sciences coursework requirement. Some regard this change as a threat to the humanities and social sciences component of the engineering curriculum.

Addressing the engineering ethics requirement of Criteria 2000-2002 through new course offerings would be a major challenge for engineering schools, according to Herkert. Surveys of undergraduate ABET-accredited institutions have shown that nearly 70% of them had no ethics-related course requirement for all students. Nearly 80% of engineering graduates attend schools that have no ethics-related courses. Some schools have ethics-related courses such as philosophy and religion, but those are usually not engineering-related.

Some colleges have already taken steps to offer ethics-related courses. Texas A&M University requires an engineering ethics course. North Carolina State University offers an optional course in engineering ethics that meets a general education requirement. Other programs, such as the University of Michigan's engineering college, have adopted the “across-the-curriculum” approach, where ethics material is included throughout the engineering curriculum.

Despite a proliferation of engineering ethics resources, including textbooks, Web sites, and faculty workshops, Herkert notes that a number of discouraging obstacles remain to making ethics instruction mandatory at engineering schools. Barriers include indifference and cynicism towards ethics initiatives on the part of some engineering practitioners and educators. There's also “inertia of the discipline-based professional societies with respect to ethical issues in engineering, a lack of engineering faculty commitment to including ethics material in their courses, and a lack of student motivation for learning such material.”

This leads to the question of training engineers in ethical responsibility. Should ethics be required in all engineering schools? How would you define ethics? Webster's Third International Dictionary defines ethics as “the discipline of dealing with what is good and bad or right and wrong or with moral duty and obligation.” Then again, who decides what's good or right, bad or wrong? We invite your comments; send them to [email protected].

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