Ethics and engineering education, a necessary partnership

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The role of teachers in the teaching of engineering is fundamental to influence the professional and ethical performance of students who will work in this area.

By Jorge Membrillo Hernández

There is growing evidence of consolidated global companies that have experienced events related to the lack of professional ethics in the fields of engineering. One of the best-known cases took place in Germany in the company Volkswagen, where six computer engineers altered the software for diesel engines and secretly installed an electronic emissions control device in 11 million vehicles. This device detected when the car was submitted to pollution tests and enabled it to pass without any difficulty, while actually polluting up to 40 times more that the accepted level. This resulted in a fine of almost 18 million USD for the company. 

Another unfortunate case occurred in Taiwan, where, after a magnitude 6.4 earthquake on the Richter scale in 2016, the Jinlong building collapsed, killing 115 people. An analysis of the rubble brought to light the construction engineers’ negligence, having placed aluminum cans in the walls and load-bearing pillars to save on cement, which earned them a prison sentence.

Teaching electric circuits, thermodynamics or sustainability does not prevent professors from putting their students to the test with ethical dilemmas.

What role should teachers play in the field of engineering to mitigate this problem? The  International Society for Engineering Pedagogy  (IGIP), founded over 40 years ago, seeks to contribute to the discussion of new pedagogical strategies for teaching this discipline.  In this organization, teachers and pedagogy experts from more than 40 countries meet every year to establish guidelines and assess the success of diverse educational trends. This year, the key topic addressed was the growing problem of corruption in the world and, above all, the role of engineering teachers and their influence on the performance of practitioners in this area was analyzed in depth.

The integration of Ethics in engineering courses should be a transversal competency, subject to measurement in accreditation processes. Teaching electric circuits, thermodynamics or sustainability does not prevent professors from putting their students to the test with ethical dilemmas. Broadening knowledge of local and international standards for engineering processes should be a compulsory course in any engineering degree program. In fact, the CEO & Executive Director of ABET (Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology) recommends that engineering degrees should be internationally accredited when they provide sufficient evidence of development in ethical dilemmas for new engineers.

The integration of Ethics in engineering courses should be a transversal competency, subject to measurement in accreditation processes.

A challenge-based learning (CBL) model can include the design of real, current ethical dilemmas that encourage students to explore and solve problems with the assistance of Engineering Education and Ethics experts. Proposals for exercises that have been implemented at Tecnológico de Monterrey, such as Week i or Semester i, in which actual challenges with social, ethical, scientific and engineering implications are addressed, have been subject to analyses conducted by experts in international forums, including the recent congress: IGIP 2017, where it was determined that with the inclusion of ethical dilemmas in this type of experiences, CBL could become a philosophy for teaching engineering.

A recent experience of applying  CBL in a Semester i consisted of solving challenges in the Boehringer Ingelheim pharmaceuticals production plant. One of the challenges was the ethical implication of the comprehensive disposal of medicine packages that do not pass the company’s quality controls, a hazardous practice if they are reused with medication from outside the company for the black market. This is a serious ethical and social issue in our country. Sustainable Development Engineering students from Tecnológico de Monterrey, Campus Ciudad de México, designed a strategy for shredding packages and reusing materials, which is now a sustainable, ethical alternative to this process at the plant.

The analysis of new engineering pedagogy trends is a key component in faculty development and, therefore, remaining current and aware of new teaching strategies is of utmost importance. If you are interested in this topic, we could form discussion groups to study and analyze the advantages of CBL in depth and, if necessary, examine and design semester i experiences similar to the one described here.

 
About the author

Jorge Membrillo Hernández earned a Ph.D. in Biotechnology and Sustainability from  King’s College, University of London, and is currently a Professor in the Department of Sustainable Technologies at Tecnológico de Monterrey, Campus Ciudad de México. He designs Semester i experiences with fellow educators and teaches the institution’s FIT (Flexibility, Innovation, Technology) courses.