An essay with suggestions on how to teach engineers responsibility for safety.
Engineers should understand that they have a responsibility to assure public safety and welfare. This duty is central to professional conduct. But often an individual engineer faces obstacles to this duty; often in the form of other duties which conflict with it. Sometimes an engineer must trade one safety concern for another. Other times, an engineer's duty to maintain client confidentiality can conflict with the duty to ensure safety. Often, an engineer must make tradeoffs between safety and cost. For example, we might be able to make cars far safer, but only at incredible cost to the company and consumer. How safe, then, is safe enough?
Professors should discuss these obligations and the kinds of conflicts that arise between them and should show students how to recognize these conflicts in the course of their work. Have students identify the people to whom they will likely have obligations in the course of their work; co-workers, managers, clients, general public, themselves (family), and their profession. Ask students to list the obligations they believe they have to each of these groups of people.
Back to Top
Based on the discussion above, ask students if they can think of realistic situations in which the obligations they identified can conflict. Students should come up with a scenario that depicts a conflict. After sharing this scenario, keep embellishing it with different "facts" to show students how the introduction of new facts alters their perception of the conflict they initially depicted. Professors can make use of the assignments described in the Background Skills page of this section to further this discussion.
Rosa Lynn Pinkus and Claire Gloeckner have developed an interesting and empirically tested project that helps students learn about these issues by expanding design course material. After having students create scenarios that depict conflicts between these obligations, students should try to do this with their own research and design projects.
In their article, "Want to Help Students Learn Engineering Ethics? Have them Write Case Studies Based on Their Research/Senior Design Project," Pinkus and Gloeckner explain the benefits of this assignment (over having students write about scenarios not associated with their own research).