Sunday, January 16, 2011

Reader’s Poll: Topics for Planned Engineering Ethics Video Wanted

Here’s where I give my readers (both of you!) a chance to participate in an ongoing project that should result in a new video drama for use in teaching engineering ethics at the college level. Over the last two decades, an organization called the National Institute for Engineering Ethics has sponsored the production of three video dramas designed to highlight ethical issues in engineering. (Full disclosure: I am a member of the NIEE board of directors.) These videos have been shown in hundreds of engineering ethics classes over the years, and serve as a springboard for discussion of a wide variety of ethical issues and dilemmas that practicing engineers can encounter on the job.

The three videos are Gilbane Gold (1989), Incident at Morales (2003), and Henry’s Daughters (2010). They are all about a half hour long, with lots of supplementary material for classroom discussions and ethics exercises. (For more information about these videos, see the reference to NIEE in the Sources section below.) If you’ve graduated in the last fifteen years or so from an engineering school which happens to use them, you may have even seen one. If you remember seeing it and it made any kind of impression on you, I’d love to hear from you about it.

But that’s not the main reason for this poll. Many aspects of engineering ethics are perennial, in the sense that human nature doesn’t change that fast and certain kinds of issues keep coming up decade after decade. So to the extent possible, the NIEE tries to address issues in these videos that share that timelessness to insure their wide and continuing usefulness. However, in the nature of things, a video starts to look dated after a while because of hairstyles, dress, vehicles, and even things like the demise of big boxy computer monitors, which happened around the time Incident at Morales was released. So the folks at NIEE are in the early stages of developing the next project, and I would like your help. (By the way, this poll is something I’m doing strictly on my own initiative, and is not an official NIEE activity).

The question I’d like you to address is this: what engineering ethics problems or issues are you either facing right now, or think you’ll be facing in the near future? This is not mainly a technology question, although new technologies can be a part of the answer. What I’m looking for is situations, dilemmas, and types of ethical problems that you have either already encountered on the job, or know about someone else who has run into them. Just to give you an idea of what kinds of things the NIEE videos have dealt with in the past, here are quickie summaries of each one, from the NIEE website:

Gilbane Gold: Gilbane Gold is the name given to dried sludge from the city of Gilbane wastewater treatment plant. It is sold to farmers as a commercial fertilizer. The annual revenue generated saves the average family about $300 per year in taxes. Z CORP, a computer components manufacturer, discharges wastewater containing small amounts of lead and arsenic into the city sewers. By current city test standards, the discharge meets allowable levels. Z CORP environmental engineers know of a newer test which shows that the discharge may still meet the letter of the law, but exceeds the spirit of the law. Protection of the health, safety, and welfare of the public is a concern.

Incident at Morales: Phaust Chemical manufactures Old Stripper, a paint remover that dominates the market. On learning that Phaust’s competitor Chemitoil plans to introduce a new paint remover that may capture the market, executives at Phaust decide to develop a competing product. To save money in manufacturing the product, Phaust decides to construct a new chemical plant in Mexico. To design the new plant, Phaust hires a chemical engineer, Fred Martinez, who had been a consultant to Chemitoil. Fred confronts several engineering decisions in which ethical considerations play a major role. . . . When samples of Chemitoil’s new paint remover EasyStrip become available, it is clear that to be competitive with EasyStrip, Phaust must change the formulation of its new paint remover, requiring higher temperatures and pressures than originally anticipated. These increases in temperatures and pressures cause significant technical and ethical problems, the most serious of which is the fact that the automatic controls no longer work as intended. Thus, the plant manager, Manuel, volunteers to control the process manually. After the plant goes into full operation, an unfortunate accident occurs, resulting in serious consequences. (Spoiler Alert: Namely, Manuel gets killed.)

Henry’s Daughters: Henry is a retired but still well-connected automobile executive and lobbyist. GUIDEME, a client of Henry’s, is involved in an academia-industry-Department of Transportation smart highway design competition called SANSHANDS. The project goal is to develop specifications for automated highways and car control systems so that people won’t have to drive anymore. Laura, Henry’s oldest daughter, is a professional engineer who works at the Department of Transportation. She is the project manager, and responsible for compiling and recommending the specifications for the computer control system. Julie is Henry’s younger daughter. With her father’s finagling, she is an intern with OUTOCAR, a local start-up company recently founded by state university engineers in partnership with the University’s Business Incubator. OUTOCAR is competing with GUIDEME to take the design of SANSHANDS to the next level. The story intertwines the lives of both young women and their father. They are excited to be involved with a project that will impact the future of transportation. While most of their discussions focus on technical and personal challenges, sometimes they unintentionally cross the ethical line by letting proprietary information slip out. Ultimately, Laura’s team recommends OUTOCAR but the final award goes to GUIDEME. OUTOCAR personnel allege that ethical misconduct and possible criminal violations occurred during the project. Consequently, the state senate ethics commission holds a hearing and calls Laura and Henry to testify.

. . . So by now you have an idea of the kinds of things these videos deal with. I’m not looking for complete detailed story ideas at this point. It’s too early in the process for that. Instead, I’m interested in situations and issues (preferably from someone’s real experience) that you think would be helpful to discuss in a college engineering ethics course.

How should you respond? The best way would be to make a comment in the comment section of this blog. That way everybody can see what your idea is right away, including me. The other option is to email me directly ( with your suggestion. I will compile whatever responses I receive in the next week or two and discuss them in an upcoming blog post.

Of course, I cannot make any assurances that what you suggest (or even what I suggest) will make it into the next video, which probably won’t be produced for several more years. But I’d like to give you a chance to contribute your ideas to what we hope will be a helpful and productive educational tool for engineering ethics classes.

Sources: Since the videos are designed for institutional use, they are a little pricey to buy on an individual basis. But you can read descriptions and see more material on them at the NIEE website And since every engineering dean in the U. S. should have received a free copy of Henry’s Daughters in the last year or so, if you want to borrow it you could ask around at the dean’s office.


  1. A situation which I have sometimes encountered is the conflict between institutional or personal ethics and client ethics. I am in the UK, where my engineering body has a statement of ethics which includes things such as always considering the good of the community, environment etc. It also includes always acting in a client's best interests at all times.

    But clients are often not so much uninterested in the engineer's wider ethical obligations as actively opposed to them. How can an engineer behave ethically when their client is paying them to bend the rules, cut costs at environmental expense etc?

  2. Hi Karl, I have only recently started reading your blog, as I've had an interest in ethics since introduced to the subject at uni. I am a chemical engineer working at a coal-fired power station in Queensland, Australia, so I currently face many ethical issues. One that is affecting Australia at the moment, and I think is a global issue, is the conflict between natural resources/farmland and extractive industries. Its a complicated argument, the industry is creating short-term jobs and wealth (for the government in royalties, but most of it goes off-shore) at the potential detriment to long-term food security and tourism industry profits. I suppose its larger than the typical dilemma that an engineer may face at work on a daily basis, but its an ethical issue that does need to be considered and addressed rather then blindly following short-term profits (and ridiculously high salaries for engineers at the moment). I hope this helps. Keep up the interesting blogging! Cheers, Liz

  3. I am a water resources engineer working out of Fort Collins, CO. I think social media is presenting some interesting problems and dilemmas. Where is the line between work and home? Is there one anymore? Can I really get fired for what I say on Facebook? There are a lot of trust issues with employees as we move into a more flexible & digital work environment and with social media because such a public medium. This is not so much a case study but a major new ethical arena arising.