Engineering Ethics

How do you properly teach ethics in engineering (or for that matter any other discipline) in class? In my experience it gets lumped in with some more report-focused class taught as a few mandatory lectures. It's important, but I'm not sure it's always conveyed very well.
Students have seen the same Tacoma Narrows bridge, Challenger explosion, Columbia burnout over and over again. I suspect the Apollo 1 fire was featured more prominently in engineering ethics courses not so many years ago, but now it fades into old news. And the students in these classes are no longer old enough to remember the Challenger. They were probably in middle school or high school when the Columbia tried to re-enter earth's atmosphere. Two years after 9-11, and 17 years after Challenger, I can't help but think this didn't have the same impact that previous disasters did.
And college students are notoriously unresponsible immature assholes. I don't like the ethics lectures because when we watch a video on the Columbia taking off and it fades away I hear a few "boom"s from the lecture hall. When somebody comes on to talk about it they snicker at his 1980s mustache. This is a cartoon for them. They're not taking the loss of life any more seriously than they're capable of taking anything else. Sure, maybe some of it is a nervous humor, an attempt to not have to take it seriously. Because that might be too real. But these are America's future engineers.
I think my age both in Challenger having a greater impact on the lives of those around me as well as being past the point of making jokes in lecture is what separates me from the vocal minority in these cases. But I try to think about the lecturer and what I would do in his case to try to get through to these students. Mandatory ethics lectures are irritating to many people, myself included. We all have places we'd rather be and other responsibilities in our life. But a brief discussion and a thirty minute video doesn't seem to be reaching these people. I feel like only in remembering these tragedies and especially remembering the pain and terrible loss of life can we hope to do better in the future.


  1. The biggest problem with ethics that I've seen is what is considered ethical by some is not ethical by others.

    For instance, I have helped an advisor review CV's for potential PhD/Postdoc candidates. When reviewing the CV's, I don't consider sex or age because I feel that is unethical and discriminating. However, my advisor did consider those things because there are differences in pay and vacation, for instance, for older students than younger students. To me, that's completely unethical but to him it's a monetary issue.

    I think if we can't agree on something like that, dealing with ethical questions like the situation surrounding Challenger with 100's of engineers, budgets, Congress, politics, etc., is waaay to much to deal with, particularly at an Ugrad level.

    Besides, what is personally ethical for you is not necessarily ethical for the company (and vice versa). The only way to tackle this (IMHO) is to have the people/students analyze the situation from both sides (or all sides for multi-faceted) of the problem. By having them analyze and explain both sides will get them to at least think critically about the issue.

  2. I guess it is sad that not every engineering undergrad is taking as much pride in the discipline. Just ask them why did they choose engineering and they probably won't think of improving people's life.