Small Group Meetings
The workshop was designed to allow time for small group discussions. Four small group meetings were held after Session III on the first day and on the morning of the second day. The first two groups were asked the same question: in regard to ethics, sustainability, and social justice in the engineering profession, how do we get “there”? Group 1 approached the subject from the engineers’ perspective, and Group 2 approached it from social perspectives. Group 3 was asked to discuss new approaches in engineering ethics research and education. These groups were asked to use workshop presentations and discussions as a basis for their deliberations. Group 4 discussed how the National Academy of Engineering (NAE) and professional engineering societies might encourage efforts by engineers to promote social justice and sustainable community development. Participants attended one of the four groups. Afterward, rapporteurs for each group described highlights of their discussions in a full plenary session.
The rapporteurs’ reports follow; for the names of group leaders, see the agenda and the list of participants in Appendixes A and B. The opinions in the following descriptions were expressed in one or more of the discussions, but they are not consensus opinions nor are they the opinions of the sponsors.
All groups agreed that the words “ethics,” “sustainability,” and “social justice” are difficult to define, and much time was spent talking about what they mean in an engineering context and how they should be interpreted. Indeed, the issue of defining the terms of the workshop took center stage, and each group attempted to come up with its own definitions. Plenary discussions following the summaries by the rapporteurs revealed sharp differences in opinion about the concept of social
justice and its implications, including its implications for engineering. Despite these differences, one group put forth the following “declaration for engineering:”
Engineers and engineering societies have a heritage of concern for ethics and ethical issues. Yet in fulfilling its professional responsibilities, engineering has for too long neglected questions about social justice and sustainable community development. As in other professions, engineers are obligated to serve the public interest. To honor this commitment to public service, engineers should pay greater attention to social justice and sustainable community development. In this way, engineering can take a leadership role in developing a vision of a profession that provides integrated solutions.
GROUP 1, ENGINEERS’ PERSPECTIVES
Karen Smilowitz, Northwestern University, rapporteur of Group 1, first noted that the difficulty of defining terms, even among like-minded people with common concerns, is indicative of their complexity. Group 1 ultimately decided that, for their purposes, getting to social justice requires “achieving equality in human rights” and “equity in human opportunity.” The group then moved on to a discussion of how to reach that goal. They identified the following essential participants in that effort: academia (at both the undergraduate and graduate levels), professional organizations, industry, government (local, state, and federal), and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs).
Group 1 discussed how engineers, engineering societies, and employers could identify pathways, solutions, and opportunities to promote just and sustainable applications in engineering and societal systems. If engineers are engaged early in the development of an engineering solution to a problem, they can do more than provide sound engineering advice; they can question whether social justice and sustainability goals are also being met by that particular project. They can also propose sustainable solutions, not just with a 12-month horizon, but with a 10- or 20-year horizon to encompass the long-term social impacts of their work.
“[Y]ou don’t just go into a community and say, ‘Here’s the solution, see you later,’ but make sure that these are sustainable solutions; this is one of the keys to sustainability.”
Karen Smilowitz, Northwestern University
Engineers should work with social scientists, group members said, to ensure that they are really “listening” to the populations they intend to serve. They have an opportunity and perhaps a responsibility to engage “customers,” expand choices, and empower these customers, as was done in the project in Kenya described in the panel on “early career” engineers. This particular project was undertaken with the cultural conditions and needs of the end users taken into account. Engineers should also continually educate the populations affected by the engineering solutions they provide. Performance and economic goals should not be the only ones taken into account in determining the success of a project—environmental, ecosystem, and social equity goals should all be considered. Project designs should also include a commitment to outcomes assessment and data gathering to determine the effects on the population.
The group concluded that academia is not currently structured to reward interdisciplinary work—which is crucial to developing curricula and programs on ethics and social justice. The group suggested that the tenure process and academic funding structures be altered to take into account the importance of interdisciplinary efforts.
Another way to publicize and legitimize these efforts to traditional practitioners of engineering is to encourage leading technical journals to feature humanitarian work. Disseminating and publicizing the social justice and sustainability aspects of engineering projects may also tap into the enthusiasm of many students for making a difference and show that there is a place for them to call “home” once they graduate. If the market potential of “sustainable development” can be demonstrated, this would tap into students’ entrepreneurial spirit. Universities must take the lead in broadening the student knowledge base, giving them multidisciplinary exposures, adjusting teaching techniques, and focusing more on the humanitarian aspects of engineering solutions to problems. Schools can also promote opportunities for students to work in the real world with NGOs, the United Nations, and similar organizations through summer- and semester-long cooperative learning programs. The group also noted that engineering societies should lead the way by adopting a coherent message and providing continuing education opportunities.
GROUP 2, SOCIAL PERSPECTIVES
Michael Loui, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, presented the summary for Group 2, which discussed how engineering projects (e.g., interstate highways that devastate minority communities in urban areas, flood levees in New Orleans) can have unintended social consequences. These negative consequences might be a function of engineers operating far from decision makers and with “blinders” on in large organizations such as the Army Corps of Engineers, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and others in the private sector, that have been shown to ignore the social and, often, the environmental consequences of their work. When faced with these problems, individual engineers need and deserve assistance; professional societies should assume responsibility for questioning the structure and functioning of these large organizations.
Several members of Group 2 argued that engineers should feel compelled to think about long-term consequences and sustainability. Even if this is not an assigned part of their jobs, they should feel an individual professional responsibility that is an integral aspect of who they are as engineers. It is true that engineers often work under constraints set by others, but they should also think about their tasks in a sociotechnical context and focus on the ends as well as the means to achieving their goal.
Along the same lines, the group urged that, although engineers cannot take full responsibility for setting social goals, they and their societies should strive to increase awareness of these issues among engineers and to develop a process of engagement with clients, employers, and the public to discuss the implementation of their work in a responsible way.
“[O]ften engineering work is divorced from the social context.”
Michael Loui, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign
The ethos of the engineering profession should encourage engineers to contribute to social justice and sustainability. This ethos should be so intertwined with the profession that it becomes common for employers to support efforts by their employees to undertake projects in pursuit of these goals. Codes for the profession should recognize this obligation.
Engineers and engineering societies should engage in an intense dialogue with scholars in the humanities and social sciences on how
engineering can serve the cause of social justice. In turn, members of those disciplines should engage with engineers to determine how they can help them work toward these goals. Engineers should also engage in a public conversation on social justice issues and ensure that representatives of typically disadvantaged groups are involved.
GROUP 3, ETHICS EDUCATION
Bruce Seely, Michigan Technological University, spoke for the third breakout group, which was asked to identify successful programs that address social justice and sustainability issues. The group began by praising many of the programs with which the workshop participants were affiliated. They then identified other programs around the country that focus on social justice, sustainability, and related topics. The more important question, the group suggested, is whether these programs have moved beyond individual initiatives to gain institutional support and whether they can be reasonably exported and duplicated.
The question of “who should teach what” must be addressed when an institution is considering whether, and how to incorporate social justice and humanitarian concerns into the curriculum. Many engineering instructors are not well prepared to teach ethics in a substantive, professional way, which raises an important question—should there be new required courses, with the involvement of humanities and social science faculty, or, perhaps, ethics material be integrated into courses throughout the curriculum?
To define “ethics” in this context, the group decided they needed more information. For instance, what is the appropriate level for classroom discourse? Discussions could include meta-ethics (looking for conceptual clarification); normative ethics (which, like practical, professional, and applied ethics, focuses on ethical implications of particular problems); paramedic ethics (encouraging professionals to use rules of thumb and standards of practice to address ethical issues); and even pop ethics (online blogs by professionals and members of the public who express their opinions on a wide variety of ethical issues in science and engineering).
Understanding the distinctions among these approaches is crucial to teaching ethics, they said. Teaching in context is an important aspect of all successful engineering instruction, but teaching ethical engineering “in context” will require adjusting materials and discussions to engineering students (e.g., students working in a lab) who may not recognize,
or may even flatly deny, that there are ethical considerations in their work.
The group then turned to a discussion of the purpose of introducing ethics in engineering education in the first place. Since many people understand the term “ethical,” as in “ethical engineer,” to mean a person who follows general moral precepts, some engineers may be uncomfortable with ethical precepts as a professional goal. Several group members noted that introducing and improving ethical reasoning, particularly in professional contexts, might be more easily accepted.
The concept of social justice, which addresses issues in social and economic contexts, often includes “ethics” but is more political. Ultimately, some argued, the common characteristic of sustainability and social justice is “values,” which, perhaps, should be introduced to students as a design parameter. Engineers should listen, rather than impose; end the expert-user divide; and take into account local and indigenous knowledge in making engineering decisions.
Successful programs in ethics bring critical thinking into the process in a variety of ways, such as asking new and different kinds of questions. Therefore, it is important to introduce a variety of perspectives on how to address problems, from feminism to race and ethnic studies to postcolonial studies, and so on.
Group 3 also took up some broad issues related to bringing ethics into engineering education, such as reexamining structures in the curriculum that lead students to feel “they must cheat to survive.” The group considered whether the “first” engineering degree should be a six-year master’s degree, that perhaps the four-year curriculum is too crowded and too short for the complete development of engineering students. They drew a distinction between training and education. Engineering programs should ask themselves whether they are producing “technicians” or “professional engineers.”
Finally, the group discussed how new media could be used in sophisticated ways to transmit the codified information in engineering curricula. This would leave more time for the discussion of issues of societal and ethical importance. Given that there are few models to follow, the best advice now, the group suggested, is to “do whatever you can make work.”
In considering the role of the Center for Engineering, Ethics, and Society (CEES), the group noted that it would be helpful to know how deeply engaged the NAE membership is in these issues. How many would be willing to participate in disseminating and supporting the
ideas generated by CEES? Perhaps CEES could focus on developing a portfolio of cases to assist engineering faculty, who often have very limited preparation for teaching ethics. In addition, CEES could lead an effort at the graduate level to ensure that potential new faculty members are familiar with ethical materials and issues before they become instructors. CEES could also provide assistance in engaging social science and humanities faculty.
Many in the group felt that there might be an emerging professional identity for instructors who teach engineering ethics, which raises a number of questions CEES might investigate. Is this a new branch of engineering? If so, what should it be called and what would its curriculum include? How would a major in this area affect a career? In an educational environment that values publications, research, and grants, how could the risks of someone getting “stuck” with no clear path to tenure be mitigated?
The answers to these questions will not be the same for all schools. Even at large research universities, where NSF efforts in grant making have made some inroads in introducing ethics, there is still little tolerance for a career path based on ethics. Smaller schools, however, might be more open to introducing new perspectives to their faculty. The approach would vary, depending on the audience, as will the response.
GROUP 4, PROFESSIONAL SOCIETIES
Joe Herkert, Arizona State University, Polytechnic Campus, was the rapporteur for Group 4, which focused on what NAE and other professional societies can do. The group suggested that NAE attempt to define the meaning of “social justice” in the context of engineering and then provide a voice for the profession with an appropriate message. The American Association for Engineering Societies (AAES) and a number of other societies have established forums on sustainability, and it would be useful to expand on those efforts, with NAE presenting the idea to their boards (based on the assumption that leadership must be engaged before members are likely to become involved). NAE can, perhaps, use the annual Convocation of Academic Engineering and Technical Societies to promote this idea.
To encourage changes in professional practices, societies must maintain a highly visible, continuing dialogue on these issues. Members of Group 4 suggested that professional societies carefully develop overt and covert messages on engineering, social justice, and sustainable com-
munity development and related issues, such as diversity in engineering. They could sponsor workshops in the corporate world, thus providing venues for sharing best practices and discussing issues of engineering and business ethics, and they could host meetings of business executives to discuss the need for more diversity in engineering and engineering leadership. In addition, professional societies should recognize exemplars with prominent conference sessions, awards, and prizes.
The group discussed how CEES could work with other engineering organizations, such as AAES and the World Federation of Engineering Organizations, to promote international cooperation on sustainability and social justice, as well as a focus on ethical leadership and organizational ethics that go beyond legal requirements.
NAE and other professional organizations could promote career opportunities provided by Engineers Without Borders and Engineers for a Sustainable World. Engineering students, including women and underrepresented minorities, are interested in the kinds of projects undertaken by these organizations, as well as in combining entrepreneurship with social justice and humanitarian goals.
Many in the group argued that professional codes of ethics should be reexamined and modified to encourage sustainability and social justice as professional goals. Codes of ethics might also be improved by explicitly recognizing multiple-value perspectives and expanding the self-policing efforts of engineering professions. Finally, the group noted that ABET could elevate the importance of ethics and sustainability, citing the American Socieety of Civil Engineers “Red Book” as an example. They also argued that more emphasis should be put on reviewing program performance in ethics areas as rigorously as in technical areas and suggested that ABET might revise its general criterion 3f: “Understand professional and ethical issues” to include the phrase “including sustainability and social justice.” Sustainability and social justice could become standard parts of continuing education to raise their visibility in the community of professional engineers.