Engineering: Throwing our ethics into the trash (literally)

Recently, while walking through my engineering building early in the morning, I came across an intriguing  sight: someone’s abandoned book entitled Ethics in Engineering resting on the lid of a trash can. Considering how little emphasis the engineering programs at UC Berkeley place on ethics, I found the sight startlingly ironic and grabbed the book.

That’s not to say the campus as a whole neglects ethics training. Scanning through Berkeley’s online course listings, I’m able to find ethics courses in Philosophy, International and Area Studies, Public Policy, Undergraduate Business Administration, Public Health, Anthropology, Journalism, Military Science, Naval Science, Political Science, and Environmental Science, Policy, and Management. But Berkeley’s College of Engineering (COE), which includes 10 departments, 2,870 undergraduate students, and 1,564 graduate students, offers only one course that focuses on the role of ethics in our discipline (“BIOE 100 – Ethics in Science and Engineering”, a requirement for bioengineering undergraduates). Ethics training for engineering graduate students is similarly minimal, coming mainly from online Graduate Student Instructor training or in the required 300-level courses on teaching. In other words: in a modern world rife with complex ethical issues; in an era of stem cells, cloning, and DNA sequencing; in an age of devastating natural disasters and international war – UC Berkeley engineers are barely being provided the most basic tools to be able to address the tough decisions that must be made in the real world. And then we simply throw those tools away.

Thumbing through Ethics in Engineering, written by Mike. W. Martin and Roland Schinzinger back in the 1980s, I came across a chapter titled “Three Mile Island and Chernobyl: The Need for Safe Exits.” One passage stood out to me in particular: “Frequently the supposedly corrective action taken by operators may make matters worse because they do not know what the problem is.” An example given in the book was the alarm-recording printers at Three Mile Island, which fell 2.5 hours behind real-time because the system was overloaded, causing operators to take ill-advised actions on the basis of outdated information. The passage, although it was written decades ago, reminded me of similar issues that arose very recently during the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan. In Fukushima, to prevent the nuclear rods from overheating when the water-cooling system failed, sea water was airlifted onto the plant, even though (as one of my materials science professors was quick to point out) the highly corrosive salt water was likely to make matters worse if an alternative cooling mechanism could not be established quickly. Both scenarios are examples of engineering and ethical dilemmas, and they show that in emergency situations with lives at stake, drawing from lessons learned from the past is critical to ensure that costly mistakes are not repeated.

Another chapter in the book discusses the Challenger disaster, which also happens to be a favorite topic of Thomas Budinger, UC Berkeley Professor Emeritus and co-author of Ethics of Emerging Technologies: Scientific Facts and Moral Challenges, the textbook of choice for BIOE 100. Still more chapters discuss issues like whistleblowing, volunteerism, antidiscrimination laws, safety and risk in design, responsibility, and so on. All of these words of wisdom were sitting on a trash can, waiting to be rescued by a curious passerby or else trucked to a landfill. I found the metaphor uncanny: after all, the College of Engineering’s approach to ethics leaves the lessons of the past vulnerable to being neglected, or worse, forgotten.

UC Berkeley strives to educate future engineers and global leaders. I argue that proper ethical training could not be more relevant to the complex problems that our alums will encounter in their careers. Yet the COE would rather squeeze out ethics training to fit in one more required course on, say, materials processing. It’s a foolish choice that will ultimately have ripple effects throughout our local and global society. We need to do more to educating our students about ethics in engineering. So I say let’s get the books out of the trash can and ethics lessons into the classroom.

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  1. You might enjoy “Rad Decision,” an insider account of life in the nuclear industry, particulary as the climatic event bears a strong resemblance to the Fukushima tragedy (same reactor type, same initiator). The book is free online, just google the title. It is a lot more fun to read than a textbook (it’s a thriller) and having worked in the nuclear fun house over 25 years I can assure you it’s a decent portrayal of the US industry. It also covers Chernobyl and Three Mile Island in some detail. Reader reviews have been very positive.

    Here is a very simplified nuclear ethical dilemma: say a “bad thing” happens at a nearby nuclear plant and the least health and safety impact on the public would be staying put inside (sheltering), not evacuation (with its traffic acidents, etc.) But it is also clear that the public would prefer evacuation right now (and many may run in any case). What is the correct recommendation for public health officials to make? I don’t know there’s a right answer for that, but it’s the type of big picture ethical dilema that is quite possible.

  2. Bob

    The NAE report about the Engineer in 2020 clearly calls for education in professional engineering ethics. Also, the ABET requirements for all universities with engineering includes an ethics component.

    However, there’s no real stipulations of how this should be done. There’s no ongoing education of the engineering as a profession, and with this, comes a social responsibility in the form of ethics. Taking one class isn’t enough (although Tom Budinger is great). Ethics needs to be a component in all courses in the major, and we need to have a more holistic view of each of our engineering disciplines.

  3. I feel the same way about a lack of ethics training in our science departments. The university runs a “Responsible Conduct of Research” seminar series, which I attended recently (more info here: As it turns out, this training is required for NIH and NSF grant participants, and I was an odd duck for going to the talk voluntarily.

  4. Karen Rhodes

    Liz, your points are well taken and timely. The College of Engineering has started an engineering ethics program with the help of a gift from alumnus Warren Minner. Mechanical Engineering department chair Dave Dornfeld is heading a team that’s looking at new courses on ethics, as well as ways to integrate ethical considerations and questions throughout the curriculum. Thanks for mentioning Tom Budinger’s book; he’s been integral to the launch of this program.

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  6. Hi Liz,

    Thanks for bringing attention to this issue. I put together an ethics course for astronomy graduate students and I am interested in expanding it across disciplines.

    If you or any of the other readers know of faculty in your department who would be interested in co-teaching an undergraduate course on ethics for science & engineering, please email me.

    Paul Kalas

    p.s. here is the syllabus for my course:

  7. Liz Boatman

    Thanks to everyone who read and responded to my post–especially to the faculty and administrators. I want to say that I recognize and appreciate your concern for ethics education. I also sincerely hope that your efforts are seen to fruition, in the case of new ethics courses in the COE, and that ultimately students at UC Berkeley gain better perspective on the relationship between their educations, ethics, and greater social/global implications. I remain concerned, however, that the connection between ethics coursework in the classroom and other social issues at UC Berkeley may not be made, despite your best intentions.

    To clarify, any graduate student in the COE who has served as a GSI is well aware of the massive cheating issues that plague the College (and likely beyond), at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. There are also issues with equipment sharing, faculty accessibility, sexual harassment, bullying, etc. Some of these are “chapters” in science/engineering ethics textbooks and courses, and some of these are not. Either way, the issues need to be taken seriously and addressed in a much grander context than short responses, quizzes, and essays. So, while I fully support the development and implementation of new ethics-focused curricula (WOW!), I also hope that faculty- and administration-level discussion surrounding these courses further catalyzes a change in climate, with respect to these other issues.

  8. Mary Sunderland

    Liz, thank you for your thoughtful and thought provoking posts.

    I will be teaching a new undergraduate course at UC Berkeley this semester “Ethics, Engineering, and Society” (E125) and am hoping that some interested engineering students will enroll. Would you be willing to share this information? I would be happy to provide you with a syllabus and answer any questions that you might have.

  9. Sung Kim

    Hi Mary. I am visiting Berkeley from this semester on a sabbatical leave from Seoul. I am very interested in Ethics in Engineering. While I was web surfing, I was very glad to find you teaching a course on engineering ethics this semester. Could you send me your syllabus and your contact email address? If possible, I would like to join you in the class to audit. I am an electrical engineering faculty and not an expert in ethics, but if there is anything I can contribute from my experience, I will. Thanks.

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