I want my students to understand the impact of their work and to take the time to ask if they should be solving their engineering challenge in a different way
For Professor Jim Orbison '75, civil & environmental engineering, ethical awareness is just as important as technical mastery in engineering education. In 2009, after nine years as dean of the College of Engineering, he returned to teaching, where his duties include coordinating the Engineering 100 course. Nine faculty team-teach this first-semester requirement, which includes professional ethics as well as a comprehensive design-build project.
With funding from the Kern Family Foundation, Orbison has incorporated into the class more discussion of values and integrity. He introduced new lectures on professional ethics, new case studies and a written ethical analysis assignment that assesses student outcomes. "Teaching professional ethics remains a challenge for engineering programs across the country. Our participation in the foundation's KEEN program supports additional development in this area," says Orbison, who also teaches structural engineering with an emphasis on highway bridge design.
"After our students graduate, most will work for companies that must make a profit to survive. The faster their employees work, the more profitable the company can be, which encourages employees to ask how they can finish projects quickly," he says. "I'd rather they ask, 'Why should it be done this way? Are we shortcutting somewhere? Is there a public safety threat involved?' I want my students to understand the impact of their work and to take the time to ask if they should be solving their engineering challenge in a different way."
Orbison cites the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster as an example. "We use the Challenger disaster as a case study. It cost NASA billions of dollars and killed nine people, but it all could have been prevented if someone had listened when one element of the design was questioned," he says.
"I want the students to understand that their role as a professional engineer is fundamentally to provide a service to society. They need to consistently produce high-quality work, and they need to consider all who are impacted by engineering projects — including the environment."
Posted Feb. 11, 2105
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