In this essay, Robert E. McGinn talks about the results of a survey of engineering students and practicing engineers. In addition to displaying the results of the survey McGinn also compares and contrasts the results.
Presented at the OEC International Conference on Ethics in Engineering and Computer Science, March 1999
(Do not cite, quote from, or reproduce any part of this paper or its appendices, including the survey questionnaire, without the written permission of the author.)
In alternate years I teach E 131, a course in the Stanford School of Engineering entitled "Ethical Issues in Engineering." Students who come to the first class meeting are asked to complete on the spot a questionnaire about various aspects of ethical issues in engineering. In addition, those admitted into the course—29 of the 70 first-day attendees in 1997—must recruit at least 6 fellow Stanford engineering students not in the class and at least 3 practicing engineers outside academia and have each of them fill out the appropriate part of the same questionnaire. Each class member retrieves and hands in at least 9 completed questionnaires at the end of the second week of class. The following week, two hours of class time are devoted to discussion of responses to selected survey questions, including short presentations on the two questions each student was asked to design and add to the questionnaire and respondents' most interesting answers to them.
My goal in designing and carrying out this survey was to furnish contextual information which could, if taken on board, enhance engineering ethics teaching and learning. Specifically, I hoped to get a sense of both the expectations that engineering students brought to the class regarding matters engineering ethical and, based on the experiences of practicing engineers regarding ethical issues in their professional careers, what current engineering students are likely to encounter along ethics-in-engineering lines in their future work lives. These dimensions of context are relevant because, presumably, how one teaches an engineering ethics course should not be independent of but rather reflect both the mentalit´s engineering students bring to the course about its subject matter and the experiences and related opinions practicing engineers have accumulated regarding ethical issues in their work lives. I hope the findings reported below prove useful to engineering ethics teachers, especially those concerned about possible disconnects between (a) the actual ethics-related expectations, experiences, and opinions of current engineering students and practicing engineers and (b) implicit assumptions about these phenomena made by engineering ethics course instructors.
The two-part survey one for students, the other for practicing engineers—contains some questions calling for short, aggregatable responses and others designed to elicit more extended, non-aggregatable responses. The data and discussion that follow pertain mostly to the short-answer questions in both parts. Comprehensive discussion of responses to the survey's long-answer questions is beyond the scope of this essay and limited here to only two items.
The survey on which this paper is based was administered on April 2, 1997. Respondents fell into three groups:
The survey was not scientifically designed, pre-tested, or administered. I am not a professional survey designer and the survey was not reviewed by one beforehand. Nor was it administered to a strictly random sample of Stanford engineering students or practicing engineers. Further, the results obtained have not been subjected to sophisticated statistical analysis. Lack of these desirable features notwithstanding, the author believes that the results obtained shed light on the topic and hopes that they prompt rigorous survey inquiry into anthropological engineering ethics, an important domain of inquiry still virtually terra incognita. One methodological point worth noting at the outset is that the results obtained from student Groups Si and Sii were deliberately kept separate. This permitted determination of whether the results obtained from the self-selected engineering students who came to the first day of class differed markedly from those who did not but subsequently filled out the survey at the request of class members. As it turned out, the response patterns of the two engineering student groups are strikingly similar.
Preliminarily, the two groups of engineering student respondents resembled each other to a quite high degree, as regards both their gender profiles and the percentages of them who indicated intentions to become practicing engineers.
After providing data about respondents' majors, year of study, nationality, gender, and career intentions, the students were asked whether they expect to be faced with any ethical issues or conflicts during their engineering careers. The affirmative response levels for both groups were strikingly high:
Although the extremely high level of 93% came as a surprise, the fact that a substantial percentage of the students in Group Si answered in the affirmative might have been expected. For these respondents constitute a self-selected group, each member of which presumably chose voluntarily to come to the first meeting of the class because of, inter alia, belief that its subject matter, as indicated by the course title, might be pertinent to their future careers. Yet, the fact that approximately 83% of the 142 students in Group Sii who intend to become practicing engineers but did not come to class answered in the affirmative strongly suggests that the great bulk of undergraduate engineering students at Stanford who intend to become practicing engineers do in fact expect to be faced with "ethical issues or conflicts" during their professional engineering careers. Discussion of why that percentage is so high follows below.
The student groups were next asked whether any engineering-related ethical issue had ever been discussed in any of their "technical engineering courses at Stanford." The responses were revealing:
Several observations are in order. First, reference was made here to engineering-related ethical issues being raised in technical engineering classes at Stanford, not to either non-engineering courses, such as standard philosophy-department ethics classes which typically are oblivious to engineering ethics and its issues, or to non-technical engineering classes, like engineering economy or communications for engineers. Second, the response structures are quite similar for the two student groups. Third, the percentages of students answering in the affirmative seem quite low in both cases: 30% and 35%. The likely reason for these figures lies in the deliberate formulation of the question: "ever been discussed (not just mentioned)" The student was encouraged not to answer in the affirmative if such an issue was merely raised but not explored in any detail. This confirms a familiar phenomenon: treatment of ethical issues in engineering is usually neglected or given short shrift in technical engineering courses. Some engineering deans and faculty members have asserted in recent years that if engineering ethics is to be taught to engineering students it should be done in their technical engineering classes rather than in dedicated engineering ethics classes. Barring multiple conversion experiences akin to that of St. Paul on the road to Damascus, or the unlikely offering of potent incentives for engineering faculty to alter the content of their courses in this respect, this survey finding suggests that holding one's breath until such teaching becomes the rule rather than the exception would be ill advised.
However, if one tends to perceive glasses as being half full rather than half-empty, encouragement can be drawn from the fact that roughly a third of respondents indicated that they had experienced some discussion of ethical issues in at least one of their technical engineering classes. In the future it would be interesting to probe this finding more deeply, e.g., to determine which fields of engineering were the ones in which students were most and least likely to be exposed to such discussion, and in what kinds of courses: introductory, mezzanine, or advanced.
Having been asked whether they had been exposed to such discussion to date, the students were asked whether they thought it would be useful to study such issues.
These affirmative response percentages are extraordinarily high, notwithstanding the fact that respondents were asked whether they thought study of related ethical issues and conflicts would be useful 'as part of their engineering education,' not just as frosting on the cake.
In light of the responses to S8 and S10, it is not surprising to learn that Stanford engineering student respondents believe that the education they have received to date has not been particularly helpful in preparing them to grapple with ethical issues which most of them believe they are likely to face in their engineering careers.
In short, more than two thirds of those who attended class the first day and about half of those subsequently recruited outside of class to complete the questionnaire felt that thus far their "undergraduate education" had helped prepare them to come thoughtfully and effectively to grips with projected future engineering-ethical challenges only a little bit or not at all. Indeed, so substantial was this perceived disconnect that only 7.1% of the first group and 17% of the second felt that their education had helped prepare them a good deal or a great deal for such challenges. This situation provides a major opportunity for and imposes a serious responsibility on teachers of engineering ethics courses.
Encouragingly, substantial percentages of both groups of engineering students reported that their "engineering instructors" had done something that suggested to them that the instructors themselves believed that taking engineering ethics seriously is important — 39% of Group Si and 53% of Group Sii. Even more encouraging is the fact that only 7.5% of Group Si and 9.7% of Group Sii reported that their instructors had done something that suggested to the student respondents that the instructors felt that taking ethics seriously was unimportant.
Additional cause for optimism can be found in the fact that majorities of both groups of engineering student respondents reported that in the course of their engineering education at Stanford they had in fact received a message to the effect that there is more to being a good engineering professional than being a technical virtuoso.
However, the optimism fueled by these findings must be seriously tempered by the fact that the percentages of students in both groups who reported having learned anything specific from their engineering instructors about what is involved in being an ethically or socially engineering professional in contemporary society are extremely low
Finally, on the engineering student side, we come to a response set that may help explain why, as seen earlier, such high percentages of respondents in both student groups answered that they expected to encounter ethical issues or conflicts in their engineering careers. When asked whether they had ever been employed in an engineering-related position, e.g., a summer job, in which they had personally experienced an engineering-related deed, practice or policy that they considered morally problematic or outright wrong, roughly a third of the respondents in both groups reported that they had.
Such experiences probably led those so exposed to believe that they would in fact be confronted with ethical issues in their future engineering careers. Of course, other factors probably also contributed to such a high percentage of the students indicating that they expected to be so confronted. However, the current survey neither sheds light on what those other factors were nor assesses their relative importance vis-a-vis the above mentioned employment experiences.
I now turn to the other major group of respondents: currently practicing engineers. With this group, the center of gravity of questions posed and responses given shifts, generally speaking, from future expectations to past experiences and opinions derived therefrom.
After obtaining basic data about each respondent's specific engineering field and number of years of experience, the engineers were asked to indicate whether on the basis of their experience they believed that students currently studying to become engineers were likely to encounter significant ethical issues in their future professional careers. The high percentage of practitioner respondents who answered in the affirmative was quite in line with the percentages of students in Groups Si (93%) and Sii (83%) who expected to face such problems:
We will shortly offer an explanation of this very high percentage. With such a percentage, it is not surprising that the responding engineers believed overwhelmingly that current engineering students should be exposed during their formal engineering education to study of ethical issues of the sort that they believe the students are likely to encounter in their future engineering careers.
The reason why the "Yes" numbers in P3 and P4 are so high is probably complex, but practitioner survey responses suggest that at least three factors are involved. First, most respondents reported knowing about ethical issues arising in engineering practice, either personally in their own work or in the work of other practicing engineers whom they knew or knew about.
Moreover, a healthy majority of the practicing engineers acknowledged wishing that they had been better prepared to deal thoughtfully and effectively with ethical issues encountered in their work.
In other words, of the 70 practicing engineer respondents who said that they had been faced with one or more ethical issues in the course of their engineering practice, two thirds affirmed that they wished they had been better prepared to deal effectively with them. This felt lack is not surprising, since most reported never having had any serious discussion of ethical or social responsibility issues in any of their engineering classes, undergraduate or graduate.
Note that serious discussion, not mere mentioning, of such issues was absent from all engineering classes, graduate and undergraduate, for three fifths of the responding practicing engineers. It would appear then that given their experience-based view that there is a high likelihood that current engineering students will be faced with such issues at work, given the absence of meaningful discussion of ethical issues in the engineering classes of most respondents, and given the quite widespread related feeling of not being adequately prepared to come effectively to grips with such issues when they were encountered, these judgments and experiences combined to engender virtually unanimous belief that such exposure should be integrated into formal engineering education. If this survey finding reflects the beliefs of practicing engineers in general, and if pedagogical and administrative behavior reflects personal belief about educational priorities, then practicing engineers apparently feel more strongly about the desirability of such integration than do engineering instructors and deans.
The responses by the practicing engineers yielded two other surprising and rather encouraging findings. First, the image of the employed engineer as permanently caught on the horns of the following difficult professional ethical dilemma is by now quite familiar: either choose to heed one's ethical concerns about some work-related engineering activity and suffer the job consequences of doing so, or choose to disregard those concerns, act to promote or protect the economic interests of the employer, and violate one's conscience. The responses of the practicing engineers who filled out the survey questionnaire suggest that this stereotypical image of the plight of the organizationally employed engineer is overdrawn. For while about a fifth of the practicing engineer respondents report that one or more of their employers had tried to deter them from acting or penalized them for having acted as they believed they should on ethical grounds, about four fifths reported no such experience. In the future I intend to probe this finding further, e.g., to see how the responses varied with engineering field and years of engineering experience.
Not only is such deterring or penalizing of engineers by their employers not the norm, au contraire: a bit more than a third of the engineer respondents reported that at least one employer of theirs had actually done something to encourage or reward them for having acted as they believed they should on ethical grounds.
This finding is surprising, encouraging, and should be conveyed clearly to all engineering students so that their employment search processes can be shaped accordingly.
Second, just as Stanford engineering students were asked (in S22) whether they had ever gotten a message to the effect that there is more to being a good engineering professional in today's society than being a state-of-the-art technical expert, practicing engineers were asked to indicate the extent to which they held the same idea. The difference here is that whereas the students' responses were anchored, presumably, in whatever messages their engineering teachers conveyed to them about this notion while they were students, in the case of the practicing engineers the primary basis for this belief is, presumably, their concrete engineering work experience.
Remarkably, only about 5% of the respondents answered "not at all" or "very little," while about 76% answered "quite a bit" or "very much." When we compare the answers to P20 with the responses given by the two groups of engineering students to S22, we see that the percentage of the responding practicing engineers who believe that being a good practitioner of engineering in contemporary society is not a purely technical matter, in other words, who believe that engineering competence (at least in contemporary U.S. society) is a profoundly socio-technical matter, substantially exceeds the percentage of the students who said that during their technical education at Stanford they had gotten a message to the same effect. Although, as seen above, few students reported learning anything specific about what it is to be an ethical and socially responsible engineering practitioner from their engineering instructors, concrete experience as a practicing engineer seems to drive home the point about the socio-technical character of engineering competence. More generally speaking, formal engineering education is apparently failing to adequately equip engineering students with the ethics background and other social skills needed to do justice to their early but seemingly superficial realization that engineering is a socio-technical endeavor requiring various non-technical competencies, something driven home much later to engineers—too much later?—by their concrete engineering practice. This important gap in non-technical engineering knowledge and skill needs to be addressed upstream in the educational life cycle of future engineers, not merely lamented and adapted to downstream.
Analyzing the answers to all the long-answer questions posed in both parts of the survey must remain a task for another paper. However, to give a sense of the kind of long-answer questions that were included in the survey and of the kind of findings they yielded, let us briefly explore the answers elicited by two such questions, one directed at the engineering students, the other at their practitioner counterparts.
Question S11 read as follows: "What, as you see it, makes an issue or a conflict one that falls within the domain of ethics (as opposed to, say, [the domain] of aesthetics or law?" (emphasis in original) Analysis of the 248 engineering student responses to this question disclosed a profoundly fragmented group understanding of what makes an issue an ethical issue. This is important because, among other things, it suggests that whether a particular situation is deemed one in which an ethical issue is present may often be a contested rather than a consensual judgment. At least a dozen general categories of criteriological responses were given, the most frequently instanced being the following:
Question P21 read as follows: "What is the most important non-technical aspect of being a responsible engineering professional in today's society?" (emphasis in original) The answers to this question provided by the practicing engineer respondents were almost as diverse as the students' answers about what makes an issue an ethical issue. The bulk of the engineers' responses fell into five general categories:
If nothing else, the diversity of the practicing engineers' answers to question P21 strongly suggests that the non-technical component of being a responsible engineering professional has multiple elements and needs systematic exploration. While the first two of the above five general categories do not always have an ethical character, they sometimes do, e.g., deceptive communication with clients and manipulative social interaction with colleagues or regulators. Together with the other three, more obviously ethics-related kinds of non-technical aspects of responsible engineering practice, these topics would seem important, perhaps imperative, to address in a comprehensive ethics-in-engineering class. Among other things, the engineers' diverse responses to P 21 underscore a claim that needs reiteration in engineering ethics classes: the scholarly literature on engineering ethics notwithstanding, there is a lot more to the non-technical component of being an ethically and socially responsible engineering professional than having the courage to blow the whistle on egregious engineering misconduct which jeopardizes public safety.
Brief syntheses follow of the engineering-ethics-related mentalitys of the Stanford engineering student respondents and of the engineering-ethics-related experiences and opinions of the practicing engineer respondents.
Based on findings derived from the survey, Stanford engineering students bring to any engineering ethics course in which they might enroll divergent and cognitively dissonant mental sets. Substantial, latent divergence of opinion exists about what makes an issue an ethical issue, something which can fuel a tendency to fall back on either facile moral relativism or traditional moral intuition informed by contemporary engineering realities. This divergence notwithstanding, widespread student expectation that ethical issues will arise in their future engineering careers coexists with infrequent, generally superficial exposure to engineering ethical issues in engineering classes and a surprising level of exposure to such issues outside the classroom. Similarly, widespread professed belief that there is more to being a good engineering professional than technical virtuosity coexists with a widespread lack of specific knowledge of what is involved in being an ethically and socially responsible engineering professional.
As for the practicing engineers, most have been faced with ethical issues in their personal engineering work, work done for employers who vary widely in their degrees of receptivity to engineers' attempts to make their practice conform to what they think morally ought to be done. The practicing engineers had little opportunity in their professional studies for learning how to deal with such issues, wish they had had more adequate preparation for doing so, believe that current engineering students will also be confronted by such issues and should be given the exposure to them that they did not get, and exhibit quite divergent views about what is the most important non-technical aspect of being an ethical and socially responsible engineering professional in today's society.
In conclusion, this shared epistemological fragmentation and substantial mismatch between engineering student expectation and practicing engineer experience regarding ethics on the one hand, and weak 'equipment'—i.e., acquisition of pertinent ethical knowledge, skill, and perspective—of both groups on the other, pose a major challenge to engineering ethics teachers. The first step in overcoming this fragmentation and alleviating this mismatch is becoming aware of their existence, natures, and magnitudes. The findings related above can play a role in realizing this goal.
Survey Questionnaire (Version 4.0)
(Y = Yes; N = No; NOp = No Opinion)
1. Major field: ________________ 2. Yr: __________(Fr, So, Ju, Sr, Grad 1, Grad 2, Grad 3)
3. Nationality: ________________ 4. Sex: _________
5. Do you intend to become a practicing engineer? (Y/N) ______ (If No, go to question 8.)
6. Do you expect to be faced with any ethical issues or conflicts during your engineering career? (Y/N/NOp)
7. If you do, what kind of such issue or conflict do you think is most likely to confront you?
8. Has any engineering-related ethical issue ever been discussed in any of your technical engineering courses at Stanford? (Y/N) (Here "discussed" implies that something more was done with the issue than simply mentioning it.)
9. If so, what issue in what course?
10. Do you think it might be useful to study such issues and conflicts as part of your engineering education? (Y/N/NOp)
11. What, as you see it, makes an issue or a conflict one that falls within the domain of ethics (as opposed to, say, one of aesthetics or law)?
12. Assume that you will be confronted by a difficult ethical issue or conflict early on in your engineering career. What kind of background or preparation do you think might help you come to grips with such a challenge in a thoughtful, socially responsible way?
13. In your opinion, to what extent has your undergraduate education thus far helped prepare you to come thoughtfully and effectively to grips with such engineering-ethical challenges as you may encounter in your career? (0 = not at all; 1 = a little bit; 2 = somewhat; 3 = a good deal; 4 = a great deal)
14. Who or what has had the most significant influence on the ethical/moral values, attitudes, ideals, or approach to making moral judgments that you would probably call upon if faced with a difficult ethical situation in engineering practice?
15. Have any of your Stanford engineering instructors said or done anything inside or outside of class that led you to conclude that they believe that taking ethical issues or social concerns seriously while functioning as an engineer is important? (Y/N)
16. If so, what gave you that impression?
17. Have any of your Stanford engineering instructors said or done anything inside or outside of class that has led you to conclude that they believe that taking ethical or social concerns seriously while functioning as an engineer is unimportant? (Y/N)
18. If so, what gave you that impression?
19. Have any of your engineering instructors ever conveyed anything specific to you about what is involved in being an ethical or socially responsible engineering professional in contemporary society? (Y/N)
20. If so, what specifically have you learned from him/her/them about this idea?
21. If so, how did you come to learn that from her/him?
22. In the course of your engineering education at Stanford have you ever gotten a message to the effect that there is more to being a good engineering professional in today's society than being a state-of-the-art technical expert? (Y/N)
23. If so, how did you come to get that or a similar message?
24. If you have been employed in an engineering-related position, e.g., in a summer job or internship, have you ever encountered an engineering-related deed, practice, or policy that you considered morally questionable or wrong? (If you have never had such a position, write "NA.") (Y/N/NA)
25. If you answered "Y" to #24, briefly describe what you encountered.
: please add here as question # 26 a unique and probing question of your own design that is pertinent to the focus of this questionnaire and that you believe might be fruitful to pose to Stanford Engineering Students.
E 131: Ethical Issues in Engineering
(Y= yes; N= no; NOp = No Opinion)
1. Field of engineering: _________ 2. Years of experience as a practicing engineer: ______
3. Sex: _________
4. In your opinion, are students currently studying engineering likely to encounter significant ethical issues in their professional engineering practice? (Y/N/NOp)
5. Should engineering students be exposed during their formal engineering education to ethical issues of the sort that they may later encounter in their professional practice?
6. Have you ever been faced with an ethical issue in the course of your engineering practice? (Y/N) [If not, go to # 10].
7. If so, please describe what kind of issue it was.
8. Looking back, do you wish you had been better prepared or equipped to deal thoughtfully and effectively with the issue at the time it confronted you? (Y/N/NOp)
9. What additional educational background or preparation, if any, might have helped you come more thoughtfully and effectively to grips with this issue?
10. Do you know or know of any engineers who have been faced in their professional practice with an ethical issue? (Y/N)
11. If you do, please describe the most interesting or provocative such issue of which you are aware.
12. Were ethical or social responsibility issues ever discussed (not just mentioned) in any engineering courses you took, undergraduate or graduate? (Y/N)
13. If so, what kind of a course was it and at what school?
14. What is the essence of your idea of an ethically and socially responsible engineering professional?
15. Who or what exercised the greatest influence on your views about being an ethically and socially responsible engineering professional?
(If an individual, please indicate your relationship to her or him.)
16. Has any employer of yours ever done anything to try to deter you from acting (or to penalize you for having acted) as you believed yourself obliged to do on ethical or social responsibility grounds? (Y/N)
17. If yes, which was it; deter or penalize; and what happened?
18. Has any employer of yours ever done anything to encourage you to act (or to reward you for having acted) as you believed yourself obliged to do on ethical or social responsibility grounds? (Y/N)
19. If yes, which was it—encourage or reward; and what happened?
20. To what extent do you believe that there is more to being a good engineering professional in contemporary society than being a state-of-the-art technical expert? (Check one)
very much ________
quite a bit _________
very little __________
not at all __________
21. What is the most important non-technical aspect of being a responsible engineering professional in today's society?
To the E131 student: please add here as question # 21 a unique, probing question of your own original design that is pertinent to the subject of this
by Robert E. McGinn
International Conference on Ethics in Engineering and Computer Science
Case Western Reserve University
March 23, 1999