Life and Death Decisions – The Source
On the first day of Engineering Ethics and Sustainability, Sandra Matteucci tells her engineering students, “I’m going to make a bold prediction: the toughest decisions you’ll make in your career will be ethical.”
During the semester, his students examine ethical lapses in cases such as the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and the poisoning of groundwater by a chemical company, to name just two examples.
“The challenge with teaching ethics is that there is an abundance of material,” says Matteucci, senior lecturer and director of the Engineering Communication Center at Washington University’s McKelvey School of Engineering in St. Louis. “I think it’s really helpful to look at historical cases because we can go back and digest what exactly happened and what the long-term ramifications were.”
Under pressure to cut costs or speed up projects, engineers must balance competing concerns to make the best decisions and convince others to act. Failure to meet this challenge can be devastating. In the case of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig, tests before the explosion showed that the cement used to seal the oil well was unstable, but nothing was done to fix it, and other problems of safety were ignored. Eleven people died in the blast, which also resulted in the worst marine oil spill in history. In another example, the chemical company DuPont was accused of letting dangerous chemicals poison the water supply of a town in West Virginia, which is the alleged cause of numerous illnesses and deaths. The chemicals in question led to the banning of non-stick coatings containing PFOA, known as “eternal chemicals”.
Using benchmarks such as the Code of Ethics developed by the National Society of Professional Engineers, “Engineering Ethics and Sustainability” prepares students to understand, evaluate, and resolve the ethical challenges facing professional engineers. This is a compulsory course for most engineering students.
“Before this course, I honestly had no idea how common it was for engineers to encounter ethical dilemmas,” says Grace Huntington, a chemical engineering student. “This course helped me identify and align my own internal ethics system.”
“The most important thing I learned from this course is that ethical decisions don’t have clear cut answers to appease my binary engineering mind and that compromise and conversation are critical to the success of any path I take. choose to follow,” says Isaac Eichenbaum, who graduated last May with a degree in systems science and engineering.
To ensure that students think about these decisions, Matteucci asks them to examine real and hypothetical case studies and also to discuss all aspects of complicated questions, such as “Should we switch to nuclear power or green energy? »
“I don’t see myself as a lecturer in this class,” Matteucci says. “Any time you talk about top-down ethics, it comes across as a bit preachy.”
A few years ago, Matteucci noticed that several cases cited in class had been adapted for film (see sidebar). Now, film reviews followed by discussions and research on real cases are a regular part of the course. After observing how people experience financial pressures or deadlines, students sometimes become intimidated.
“They see how really good people can get caught up in a system that does bad things. For some students, it’s really haunting,” she says. “They ask, ‘Would I be able to stand up to a big company?'”
To allay these fears, Matteucci reminds students that their engineering skills can help them make ethical decisions.
“One of the things I want students to take away is that they have a specialized body of knowledge that other people don’t have,” she says. “Their non-engineering managers can make decisions without really realizing how dangerous the chemicals are, or that there must be maximum load calculations for load-bearing structures.”
After showing the failures of class ethics in movies like Horizon in deep waters, Matteucci understands Apollo 13 to help students.
“What I like about Apollo 13 is that the mission was considered a successful failure,” she says. “It’s really important to look into cases like this because even though they didn’t have the desired outcome, they did protect human life. There’s this big line where they say, “This will be our finest hour,” which means it’s not a failure, it’s our highest moral achievement.