This essay discusses teaching engineering students to consider the environmental implications of the design choices they make.
The creation and implementation of new technology, products, and buildings involves many professionals. But the engineer has a particularly special role to play in that the design of products and technology has direct ethical implications. When a company decides to create a new product, it is the engineers who, in designing that product, make decisions that affect the world's resources. Design questions as simple as `What materials should go into this product?' have incredible implications for the environment. Engineering students should be taught to consider the environmental implications of the design choices they make. They need to be given the tools to assess those implications (that is, to make value judgments about them). And finally, they need to consider how to mediate possible conflicts of environmental concerns with economic concerns and obligations to clients and employers. This section offers pedagogical advice for incorporating these ethical considerations into the design course.
When teaching engineering students about the environmental impacts of technology, it is important to stress both ethics and the law. Students should be aware of law; especially the National Environmental Policy Act, 1969 which was passed, in part, to get engineers to incorporate the environmental affect of their projects into their design procedure. Students should also be aware of ethics; especially questions surrounding our obligations to the environment, animals and future generations. What is the source of these obligations? How do we mediate conflicts between these obligations and obligations to clients and bosses or economic concerns? How can we incorporate environmental concerns into the design process given uncertainty of the long-term effects of technology on the environment? Given that many professionals are involved in the creation of new products, how much responsibility should fall on engineers to care for the environment?
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The goal here is to get engineering students to expand the questions they ask themselves when making engineering design decisions. By introducing the relevant background information and using realistic scenarios in the process of doing so, you should already be in a good position to show students that engineering decisions often have environmental impacts. Given this, such decisions need to be made in a context larger than a purely scientific one. The best way to incorporate these ideas into the classroom so that students can get practice thinking within the larger context is to expand problems they are already working on in the classroom. Michael Davis, in his article Teaching Ethics Across the Engineering Curriculum, explains how professors can take typical problems found in engineering textbooks and revise them in a way that gets students to think about design problems in the larger context. Examples: