When Liz Boatman saw a copy of Ethics in Engineering atop a trash can at the University of California—Berkeley's College of Engineering in fall 2011, the materials science and engineering doctoral candidate saw a metaphor for what she perceived as Berkeley's neglect of ethics in engineering. Half a year later, Boatman still stands by an article she wrote for Berkeley Science Review, "Engineering: Throwing Our Ethics into the Trash (Literally)."
"It's as if the faculty prefer to operate under the premise that ethics conscientiousness is simply implied by being an engineer, although nothing could be further from the truth," she says. "While it is true that our courses weave in ethical components, simply discussing 'factors of safety' for a design problem or receiving isolated sexual harassment training for teaching preparation is an ethical education that falls far short of serious preparation for confronting ethical dilemmas."
Engineers must hold public safety "paramount," be truthful, and only perform services in their areas of competence, according to the National Society of Professional Engineers' Code of Ethics for Engineers. Yet ethics appears to constitute a "minimal component" of engineering education at most large research institutions, while private schools—which hold social values to higher standards—have better ethics track records, according to Boatman.
But engineering faculty say graduate engineering programs are starting to focus more on ethics, particularly in light of recent ethics guidelines from ABET (previously known as the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology). Those guidelines require that schools provide students "an understanding of professional and ethical responsibility," according to the ABET site.
[Read about how business schools increasingly require students to study ethics.]
"This is not because students of today are inherently less ethical, but rather because the ethical dilemmas they are likely to face are more complex and the consequences are much more severe," he says. "Corporate engineers who violate environmental laws can now face criminal charges with major penalties."
Pershing advises students who are applying to graduate engineering programs to check whether prospective schools are among the 37 that ABET accredits—and thus subject to its ethics requirement. Applicants should also ask admissions officers if their schools have stand-alone ethics courses, or if ethics is infused throughout the curriculum, he adds.
Even though he's noticed more and more integration of ethics principles into his engineering classes at the Colorado School of Mines, Josh Bush, who earned an M.S. from Mines in mechanical engineering in 2012, says the ABET-accredited Mines still has a long way to go.
"I think, in general, education incorporating ethics is still limited mostly to peripheral discussion seminars," he says. "Primary coursework is almost exclusively technical."
[Learn why MBA's may face lower salaries in corporate social responsibility.]
There's a debate in engineering programs about whether stand-alone ethics courses are effective or if it's "another subject to be checked off the required course list," according to Braden Allenby, professor of engineering and ethics at Arizona State University's Fulton School of Engineering, which is ABET accredited.
"Once the student realizes that an ethical failure is an engineering failure, you've achieved an important level of ethical understanding," says Allenby, who infuses the study of ethics throughout his courses.
At Cornell University's College of Engineering, alumni are supporting the university's interest in teaching ethics, which has "grown substantially" in the past decade, says Ron Kline, a professor of the history and ethics of professional engineering.
[See why grad engineering programs are probing the intersection of science and art.]
There is also a "full-blown" program at Duke University in "responsible conduct of research" for graduate students, says Daniel Vallero, an adjunct professor of engineering ethics at the Pratt School of Engineering. Like Cornell, Duke is ABET accredited.
"The good news is that ethics can be taught. Our research has shown that we can enhance students' awareness and improve ethical decisions," Vallero says. "The bad news is that we were not able to gauge how this would carry through to behavior. Indeed, we probably won't know that until these future researchers are in the field for a decade or so."
Bush, the Mines graduate, has specific advice for grad engineering applicants:
"I'd suggest trying to pick an adviser that shares your views on the subject [of ethics], at a school that has a research program that is in line with your principles," he says. "Research is a labor of love, so you have to be passionate about what you do, and a big part of that is what motivates you."
Searching for an engineering school? Get our complete rankings of Best Engineering Schools.