Most engineering schools don't require a course in ethics, UMass professor finds

March 05, 2000

AMHERST, Mass. -- Only about one-third of the nation's engineering schools require all students to take any courses in the ethics of engineering, according to Karl Stephan of the electrical and computer engineering department at the University of Massachusetts. Stephan's findings were published in a recent issue of The Journal of Engineering Education.

"Engineering has a pervasive influence on society," said Stephan. "We need to think about the extent to which engineers are taught about the ethical implications and ramifications about what they do. Engineering does a great amount of good. We have clean water instead of dirty water. We have a level of physical comfort that is a tremendous boon to humanity, and engineering is to thank for that. But engineering can also be used unethically, as in several recent Internet hacking cases."

The focus on ethics in engineering has been on minimizing hazards, said Stephan. "Considering how to minimize the hazards posed by technology is always going to be an issue. Will aircraft and automobiles work safely? Will bridges and buildings stand or collapse? These are events that can kill or injure people, and the concern is entirely appropriate," said Stephan.

For his study, Stephan surveyed the catalog requirements of nearly all the engineering schools in the U.S. to determine whether they required all of their undergraduates to take a course, or part of a course, in engineering ethics. The survey included 242 of the 254 programs listed in the 1996-97 American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE) Directory of Undergraduate Engineering Statistics. The following statistics are among the findings:

*Fewer than 27 percent of schools require all students to take any ethics-related courses.

*18 schools, or 7.1 percent, require two or more courses. Many institutions in this category have either a current or past tie to a religious denomination.

*25 institutions, or 9.8 percent of the total, require one course devoted to ethics or related topics. Only three of these schools have religious roots.

*26 schools, or 10.2 percent of the total, require only a course that mentions ethics along with other topics.

Also at issue, although less noticeable, is the way engineering can change society unintentionally, Stephan said. The growth of the Internet and the spread of television and movies have revolutionized commerce and politics and "contributed to changing moral standards in a way that some people are very concerned about. That doesn't mean we should censor, but it is a side effect, which would not have occurred without technology."

Linda Enghagen, a hotel, restaurant, and travel administration professor who teaches an elective engineering law and ethics course for engineering graduate students and undergraduates at UMass, says it's sometimes difficult to even concede that an ethics course is needed. "Most of us want to believe that we don't need to offer courses in ethics, because we want to believe that by virtue of an education, these issues will arise and be discussed over time. But that doesn't always happen." Enghagen's students grapple with a range of topics, from routine issues such as billing practices, conflict-of-interest, and discrimination, to others that are particular to engineering, such as the need to ensure safety in spite of the pressures of cost and deadline, she said.

Younger students tend to perceive ethical considerations as fairly clear-cut: "They see things as right or wrong, whereas the graduate students, who have been in the workforce, see shades of gray." Also, undergraduates "overestimate the ease of making difficult moral decisions because they don't have other pressures on them yet," such as paying bills and providing for a family.

The engineering code of ethics, which Enghagen shares with the students, states that the engineer's "paramount" concern is the well-being and safety of the public -- an idea that Enghagen tries to drive home. "I want to get them out of the mindset that what they're doing is merely a job, and motivate them to conduct themselves in an ethical way. I want them to be better able to reflect on their own action -- or inaction -- when the time comes that they will have to make decisions about how they're going to react to a situation, and what those decisions will say about who they are as people."

Stephan agrees: "People are beginning to question, beyond earning high pay and good benefits, what's the job doing for culture and society? What am I doing to make the world a better place? What is the meaning of a job? These are really profound questions."
Note: Karl Stephan is currently on leave, but can be reached at or 512-306-7950.
A photo of Stephan is available at

Linda Enghagen can be reached at 413/545-4044 or

University of Massachusetts at Amherst

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