For the first time, this year’s Inspiring Community Leaders training series featured a workshop hosted by Engineers Without Borders International, investigating engineering ethics and the future of engineering education. The themes of the session built on the principles of our ongoing advocacy work demonstrated through the Open Letter. Produced in collaboration between eight Engineers Without Borders organisations, the letter was a response to proposed updates to international benchmarks of engineering competency frameworks. The letter suggests that the updates go some way to encourage the use of 12 key attributes, for example covering Ethics; Continual lifelong learning; The engineer and society; Human, social, economic and environmental impacts, but also highlights how it overlooks three key competencies:

  1. Emphasis on critical thinking
  2. Deeper comprehension of the ethical issues
  3. Broader appreciation for the knowledge needed

The workshop aimed to provide an opportunity to practice critical reflection about engineering and its impacts. It also aimed to reflect on the current views of engineering that underpin the educational experience so participants can make more informed decisions about their development.

Exploring the ethics of engineering 

An emphasis on critical thinking was central to the session and was contextualised through two case studies: the design of American prisons and the reality of predictive policing algorithms. These topics brought up fascinating reflections on community consultation, inclusivity and a better not best mentality, with one participant commenting,

“If you don’t take the job then someone else will and they won’t consider these things, at least if you take the job you can put in conditions.”

For many, embedding a globally responsible practice that ensures engineering serves all people, maybe easier said than done. There is a common assumption that engineers are at the mercy of the client and therefore ability to embed this practice is limited. However, in recent years examples such as Google employees protesting against a contract with the US government to improve the targeting of drone strikes through AI, has proved the potential impact of collective action in an engineering setting. After over 4,000 employees signed a petition stating ‘Google should not be in the business of war’, Google pulled out of the deal. Many may argue it was a knee jerk reaction to protect brand reputation, others may see a decision that was made as a result of nuanced and ethical consideration. Google followed the decision by publishing a set of ethical principles that ‘set out our commitment to develop technology responsibly and establish specific application areas we will not pursue.’

The reality of implementing standards

During the workshop, participants from around the world broke off into small groups to discuss their educational experience and how it narrowed or broadened their outlook on engineering.

Worldview and mindsets can have a fundamental impact on how any concepts (including standards) are interpreted. If people assess competency or design university educational experiences with a narrow or broad view, there may be very different outcomes. This was explored in the session by plotting participants’ experiences on a broad to narrow spectrum.

  • Overly narrow views on engineering could include a focus on ‘building’, rather than solving scalable problems. For example ‘Engineers apply science to build things’ and a general view that the further away you are from performing calculations for a project, the less it’s ‘real’ engineering.
  • Overly broad interpretations of engineering, include ‘Engineers are problem solvers’ or ‘Engineering is a mindset’, but that doesn’t give us a specific understanding about the role of engineers or engineering compared to other professions, areas of society or disciplines.

The workshop also asked the question, when reflecting on all of your educational experiences, what was your dominant experience? Was it too narrow, too broad or just right?

Participants described that internships, open days and networking all helped to broaden their experience. As did explanations of interconnected systems, whether microeconomics, manufacturing, asset management or water resources. Talks delivered by professionals, activities run by university Chapters and engagement with Engineers Without Borders UK’s in curriculum Design Challenges were referenced frequently. However, many mentioned that they had not taken any other classes or modules that focus on the environmental or ethical consequences of engineering, that the ‘why’ of engineering was rarely covered. Some mentioned that in their courses there was mention of Sustainable Development, but with little dialogue, discussion or deeper learning available. Others spoke about there being little room for critical thinking and the technical aspects of the role were obviously much more valued. In one group, a graduate from 1984 reflected that it appears they had a similar narrow experience to that of an undergraduate predicted to graduate this year 2021.

This group of international participants, although limited in size, shone a light on the limitations of engineering education around the world, causing participants to reflect on what it really means to be an engineer.

“I have not had a chance to choose any electives (and will not until 4th year) and have not had any classes which focus strongly/solely on the environmental or ethical impacts of engineering. Because of this I do think that my experience of an undergraduate degree, so far, has been quite narrow. On the other side of this, I took a class in economics which broadened my view of engineering and how much planning goes into engineering decisions.”

By fostering critical reflection about engineering and its impacts, we can create a more robust understanding of engineering’s opportunities and ethical responsibilities. Based on this understanding, we must provide current and future professionals within engineering with the tools and support required to step into these greater opportunities and responsibilities. To do this we will interrogate the curriculum and encourage system change and work with industry leaders to educate the workforce on the importance of global responsibility in daily practice. These are two central themes of our new 2021-2030 strategy which will be launched in May this year.

Don’t miss your chance to learn more about our new strategy by attending the launch on Wednesday 26 May.

To learn more, listen to Head of Engineering, Emma Crichton in conversation with the New Civil Engineer podcast discussing how engineers can use their skills to benefit the whole of society and stresses how the importance of ethics in engineering needs to be better understood.