An instructional resource for teaching engineering responsibility for societal consequences
Decisions about the directions technology take and how products are designed can have incredible societal impacts. Job displacement and loss of privacy are two examples of societal consequences of technology. This section focuses on teaching engineering students about the profound societal affects of the technological products they create and getting them to consider what processes could be built into their designs that will prevent problems or at least provide solutions to them should they arise. (Some of the underlying issues here will also be relevant to certain topics within the Professional Responsibilities of the Individual Engineer section.)
Teaching students about the societal impact of engineering decisions is a three step process:
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The goal of these pre-assignments is to satisfy the first two steps: to show students that ethical dilemmas are embedded in the very practice or process of engineering (in this case, ethical issues regarding the societal implications of technology) and to show students how to anticipate the possible societal implications of their designs.
Once students are taught to anticipate the societal implications of engineering, they are ready to tackle the third step: learning how to incorporate these possibilities into their own engineering decisions. Students in design courses can think about these implications for their own designs. ComputingCases.org has a brilliant project called the Social Impact Analysis (SIA). Similar to the Environmental Impact Statement, the SIA is "a way to involve students directly in investigating the social and ethical issues associated with a real or proposed computing system." Ben Shneiderman first suggested this project as a way of enabling "software designers to find out the social impact of the systems they design in time to incorporate changes in those systems as they are built."
While this project was developed for computer science majors, it can easily be altered to work for any engineering discipline. Students are asked to identify potential societal implications of their projects and to think about how changes in the design of those products might mediate such implications. Suggestions are given on the website for preparing and writing an SIA as an ongoing aspect of the design course.