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Making Connections: Engineering Ethics
on the World Wide Web

Joseph R. Herkert


Abstract--This paper focuses on the use of the World Wide Web in courses and course units dealing with engineering ethics and/or the social implications of engineering. Course materials and other resources for use by students and faculty are discussed and a new website, the Web Clearinghouse for Engineering and Computing Ethics, is introduced. Course materials and resources found on the Web include: ethics centers that focus on engineering ethics and/or other fields of professional ethics; case studies and other instructional materials; course syllabi; codes of engineering ethics; ethics pages of professional societies; papers, articles and reports with relevance to engineering and computer ethics; on-line ethics journals and newsletters; and primary source archives. The Web lends itself for use as a place to post a "living" course syllabus, with hypertext links to on- and off-site material containing course information and assignments as well as information on content and pedagogical techniques of interest to faculty who are developing and teaching courses in engineering and computing ethics. By illustrating in real-time the interconnectedness of information from engineering, the humanities and the social sciences, the Web serves as a tangible metaphor for the interdisciplinary approach necessary for a complete examination of ethics in engineering.


I. Introduction

Though only a few years old, the World Wide Web (WWW) is a rich and rapidly growing resource of information on engineering ethics. The Web provides a convenient gateway to on-line instructional materials for faculty preparing engineering ethics courses or course modules, resources for use by students and practicing engineers, and archival information for research on engineering ethics by scholars and representatives of engineering societies. This paper focuses on the use of the World Wide Web in engineering education, with particular relevance to courses and course units on engineering ethics and/or the social implications of engineering.

As an important complement to this paper, the websites discussed, as well as other on-line resources relevant to engineering and computing ethics, are indexed on a new web page, the Web Clearinghouse for Engineering and Computing Ethics, which is sponsored by the Division of Multidisciplinary Studies, North Carolina State University [1]. The purpose of this site, which contains no original material, is to provide a comprehensive, user-friendly index of materials on the Web relating to engineering and computing ethics. The material on the site is indexed (see Appendix) according to a number of categories including: ethics centers; professional societies; codes of ethics; conferences; books and reports; journals and newsletters; mailing lists and newsgroups; and case studies. The site will be periodically expanded and updated by the author with the goal of maintaining a reputable on-line clearinghouse of worthwhile information on engineering and computing ethics.

This paper first presents an overview of course materials and resources on engineering ethics that are available on the World Wide Web, then considers various uses of the Web for an on-line course syllabus. The paper concludes with a discussion of the Web as a metaphor for interdisciplinary fields such as engineering ethics.


II. Course Materials and Resources

Course materials and resources found on the Web include: ethics centers that focus on engineering ethics and/or other fields of professional ethics; case studies and other instructional materials; course syllabi; codes of engineering ethics; ethics pages of professional societies; papers, articles and reports with relevance to engineering and computer ethics; and on-line ethics journals and newsletters. There is also a wealth of primary source material relating to engineering ethics as well as societal aspects of technology.


III. Ethics Centers

A number of established professional and applied ethics centers have created comprehensive home pages on the WWW, and other centers have been created specifically to take advantage of the Web's unique capabilities for information dissemination. These centers are usually staffed by experts in the field of professional and applied ethics (including philosophers and practitioners in the various professions) and thus provide a "gatekeeper" function with regard to the quality of the content contained on the websites.

The most comprehensive engineering ethics center is The World Wide Web Ethics Center for Engineering and Science [2]. The Center, formerly located at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, moved to Case Western Reserve University in the summer of 1997. This site, which was created with support from the National Science Foundation (NSF), contains an abundance of diverse material, original and imported, on such topics as research ethics, codes of ethics, case studies in engineering ethics, and corporate ethics. Though not formally designated as an ethics center, another site of considerable value is the Engineering Ethics site at Texas A&M University [3], which includes introductory essays on engineering ethics and engineering ethics case studies developed with funding from the NSF. Other ethics centers, such as the Research Center on Computing and Society at Southern Connecticut State University [4], focus on the ethics and social implications of computing. Finally, there are a number of ethics centers on the Web which focus more generally on the field of professional and applied ethics, including, for example, the Institute for Business and Professional Ethics at DePaul University [5].


IV. Professional Societies and Codes of Ethics

Codes of ethics promulgated by professional engineering societies are important resources in developing an understanding of the professional responsibilities of engineers [6]. Codes can be found at various places on the Web, including the ethics centers previously discussed. The World Wide Web Ethics Center for Engineering and Science [2], for example, contains a collection of about a dozen codes of ethics and conduct. The Center for the Study of Ethics in the Professions at the Illinois Institute of Technology [7] recently received funding from the NSF to digitize and make available on-line its entire library of professional ethics codes consisting of more than 850 documents, including earlier versions of existing codes.

Another on-line source of codes is the growing number of websites of the professional societies, which also provide information to the society's members and other interested parties regarding organizational support and procedures relating to ethical concerns. Indeed many societies, such as the National Society of Professional Engineers (NSPE) [8] and the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) [9] have ethics pages located within their websites. Other professional organizations, which have evolved specifically out of an interest in the social and ethical implications of technology, such as the IEEE Society on Social Implications of Technology [10] and Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility [11], maintain comprehensive websites covering their organization's field of interest, including special pages for ethics-related activities.

Unlike the ethics centers, which tend to be university-based, these sites offer information and perspectives on engineering ethics developed by the volunteers and staff of the professional societies themselves--an essential complement to the scholarly and undergraduate education focus of much of the content found on the university sites.


V. Case Studies

The use of case studies is an important technique in educating engineering and computer science students and practitioners on the social and ethical implications of their profession [12]. Over the past decade a wealth of case study materials have been developed by various sources and many of these materials have been made available on-line.

Collections of engineering ethics case studies can be found at a number of websites. The World Wide Web Ethics Center for Engineering and Science [2] includes more than thirty discussion cases based upon cases considered by the NSPE in such areas as public safety and welfare, conflict of interest, and international engineering ethics. This site also contains materials developed at the Center on such cases as Roger Boisjoly and the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster. The Engineering Ethics home page at Texas A&M University [3] includes three sets of case materials developed with NSF funding: 1) about a dozen engineering ethics cases and instructor guides for use in engineering courses, including several well known ones such as the Hyatt Regency walkway collapse and the B.F. Goodrich Air Brake Case (these cases and introductory essays on engineering ethics are also available from Texas A&M on disk in Wordperfect 5.1 format); 2) more than 30 cases and commentaries developed at Western Michigan University's Center for the Study of Ethics in Society, indexed by such topics as acknowledging mistakes, environmental & safety concerns, and honesty and truthfulness (interactive versions of these cases are also available from the center on disk in MS-DOS format); and 3) about seventy numerical cases specifically designed to be utilized in required courses in civil, chemical, electrical, and mechanical engineering, which were developed by faculty and students at a workshop sponsored by NSF and the Harry E. Bovay, Jr. Ethics Endowment.

In addition to case studies specifically developed to highlight engineering ethics, other case study materials can be found on the Web which may be of use in teaching engineering ethics or courses dealing with the environmental and societal impacts of technology. The Trade and Environment Database maintained at The American University, for example, contains dozens of detailed cases in twenty-eight categories dealing with environmental problems and accidents which impact on international trade [13]. Individual cases can also be found at various sites, such as the very detailed case study of the design failures underlying The First Quebec Bridge Disaster that is maintained at Carleton University [14].


VI. Primary Source Archives

Many primary source documents are available on the WWW on individual sites or in designated archives. This material is an invaluable resource for individual research projects conducted by faculty and/or students, and can also be very useful in the construction of case studies as a supplement to the "off-the-shelf" case studies discussed earlier in this paper. For example, students, working in small groups, can be assigned the task of researching, preparing and presenting case studies to the class [15]. Primary source materials available on-line include, for example, bulletins of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission issued following the Three Mile Island accident [16] and advisories from the Food and Drug Administration regarding the Bjork-Shiley heart valve [17] and silicon breast implants [18]. A number of archival sites provide extensive access to ethics-related material, including, for example, the server NASA maintains on the Challenger disaster [19] and Project Polyn, a site maintained at the Kurchatov Institute in Russia which focuses on the Chernobyl accident and its aftermath [20]. Archival material is also available on such cases as the Exxon Valdez oil spill [21] and the Hanford Nuclear reservation [22].


VII. Papers, Reports and Journal Articles

The Web includes a great deal of information on the availability of traditional resources for engineering ethics education including books, reports, journals, and newsletters. In many cases, the content of these sources is directly available on-line, such as the reports from the NSF-funded ImpactCS Project (Social and Ethical Impact of Computing) [23], and Professional Ethics Report, a quarterly newsletter published by the American Society for the Advancement of Science [24]. A number of the ethics center sites also include on-line reports and articles authored by members of the center, for example, Michael Davis' well-known essay "Thinking Like an Engineer: The Place of a Code of Ethics in the Practice of a Profession" [6]. Information on other electronic resources, such as newsgroups and electronic mailing lists is also readily available.


VIII. The On-line Course Syllabus

In addition to providing information on engineering ethics, the Web lends itself for use as a place to post a syllabus and/or home page providing students with course information and assignments. On-line syllabi are also a valuable source of information on content and pedagogical techniques for faculty who are developing and teaching courses in engineering and computing ethics.

Beyond merely serving as an electronic reproduction of the hardcopy course syllabus, however, the web version can be a "living" course syllabus with hypertext links to on- and off-site reading materials. Such links can be listed separately on the course home page [25], or embedded in the electronic version of the course outline and readings [15]. In the same manner that library reserve readings can encourage students to use the library, an on-line syllabus with hypertext links can provide the students with experience at using "virtual" or digital libraries.

Indeed, use of the Internet itself can serve as a case study in engineering or computing ethics and the social implications of technology [26]. Ethical issues involving use of the Internet include, for example, free speech, privacy, and intellectual property rights.

An on-line syllabus, or a course home page, can also be utilized to take advantage of Internet technology for the enhancement of the course through such activities as student webpage projects [26], on-line class discussion groups [27], and class newsgroups [28]. In an example that combines two Internet technologies, one professor has her students write critiques, in an "email journal," of various controversial websites that are accessible from the course home page [29].

While many engineering ethics home pages and course syllabi make use of images, to date there have not been very many instances where other forms of multimedia are employed. The pace of change in Internet technology is such that it is difficult to keep track of the possibilities for innovation in on-line engineering ethics education. Such possibilities include wider use of multimedia, simulations, and interactive exercises. Because website development is a time-intensive process, more funding mechanisms are needed to ensure that innovations of this type in engineering ethics keep pace with other areas of engineering education [30].


IX. The Web as an Interdisciplinary Metaphor

Within the prevailing culture of engineering, a very high premium is placed on technical solutions to problems [31]. Consequently, the importance of other approaches is often lost on engineers and engineering students. Using the Web, a case study or course unit can be constructed that draws upon technical reports, social and ethical analyses, and media accounts of a particular issue or problem. Often these documents will themselves contain hypertext links to yet other information with relevance to the problem or issue initially under consideration. By illustrating in real-time the interconnectedness of information from engineering, the humanities and the social sciences, the Web thus functions as a tangible metaphor for the interdisciplinary approach necessary for a complete examination of ethics in engineering and the societal implications of technology.

As with all legitimate approaches to learning, however, there is a need for structure and intellectual rigor in interdisciplinary approaches. Here the Web can also be a valuable learning tool, for it is difficult without some concerted effort to separate the wheat from the chaff that appears on the Web. The phenomena of Web surfing can lead you to exciting conclusions about the ways in which technical, social and ethical analyses reinforce each other, or on a wild goose chase wherein you see a lot of material but learn very little.

While use of the Web serves as a reminder that not all information is relevant or useful, interdisciplinary courses and course materials can provide students with the experience to filter information in a judicious manner. Parallel to the need for better, "smart" Internet search tools is a need to develop smart searchers, i.e. good judgment on the part of the humans doing the searching. Courses and course modules focused on engineering ethics and the social implications of technology not only provide students with the knowledge and critical thinking skills necessary to make difficult moral decisions, but also give them exposure to the ethical, social, economic and environmental framework in which all engineering decisions are made. Seen in this light, the Web is a complement to, rather than a replacement for, traditional content and pedagogy in engineering ethics.


Appendix

Outline: Web Clearinghouse for Engineering and Computing Ethics

http://www4.ncsu.edu/unity/users/j/jherkert/ethicind.html

Ethics Centers

Course Syllabi

Professional Societies

Codes of Ethics

Conferences

Books and Reports

Newsletters and Journals

On-line Articles

Mailing Lists and Newsgroups

Cases

Other Engineering and Computing Ethics Resources

Other Professional Ethics Indices

World Wide Web Search Engines


Acknowledgments

This paper was presented at the 1996 Frontiers in Education Conference, Salt Lake City, Utah, November 6-9, 1996 in the session on "Ethics in the Engineering Curriculum." I wish to thank the Session Chair, Stephen H. Unger, for inviting me to participate.


References

[1] Web Clearinghouse for Engineering and Computing Ethics, WWW: http://www4.ncsu.edu/unity/users/j/jherkert/ethicind.html.

[2] The World Wide Web Ethics Center for Engineering and Science, WWW: http://www.cwru.edu/affil/wwwethics/.

[3] Engineering Ethics, WWW: http://ethics.tamu.edu/.

[4] Research Center on Computing and Society, WWW: http://www.scsu-cs.ctstateu.edu/rccs/.

[5] Institute for Business and Professional Ethics, WWW: http://condor.depaul.edu/ethics.

[6] Davis, M. 1991. "Thinking Like an Engineer: The Place of a Code of Ethics in the Practice of a Profession." Available on the WWW: http://www.iit.edu/~csep/md.html.

[7] Center for the Study of Ethics in the Professions, WWW: http://www.iit.edu/~csep/.

[8] National Society of Professional Engineers. Ethics, WWW: http://www.nspe.org/eh-home.htm.

[9] IEEE Ethics Committee, WWW: http://www.ieee.org/committee/ethics.

[10] IEEE Society on Social Implications of Technology, WWW: http://www4.ncsu.edu/unity/users/j/jherkert/index.html.

[11] Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility, WWW: http://cpsr.org/home.

[12] Pritchard, M. 1992. "Teaching Engineering Ethics: A Case Study Approach." Available on the WWW: http://ethics.tamu.edu/pritchar/an-intro.htm.

[13] Trade and Environment Database, WWW: http://gurukul.ucc.american.edu/TED/SUPER.HTM.

[14] The First Quebec Bridge Disaster--A Case Study, WWW: http://www.civeng.carleton.ca/ECL/reports/ECL270/Introduction.html.

[15] Herkert, J. Course Syllabus: Engineering Ethics, WWW: http://www4.ncsu.edu/unity/users/j/jherkert/mds320.html.

[16] Nuclear Regulatory Commission. 1979. Nuclear Incident at Three Mile Island -Supplement (IE Bulletin 7905-A), WWW: ftp://ftp.fedworld.gov/pub/nrc-gc/bl79005a.txt.

[17] Food and Drug Administration, News 3/12/92 (P92-7), WWW: http://www.fda.gov/bbs/topics/NEWS/NEW00269.html.

[18] Food and Drug Administration, News 1/6/92 (P92-1), WWW: http://www.fda.gov/bbs/topics/NEWS/NEW00263.html.

[19] National Aeronautics and Space Administration. 51-L (25), WWW: http://www.ksc.nasa.gov/shuttle/missions/51-l/mission-51-l.html

[20] Kurchatov Institute. Hypertext Data base: Chernobyl and its consequences (Project Polyn), WWW: http://polyn.net.kiae.su/polyn/manifest.html.

[21] Oil Spill Public Information Center, WWW: http://www.alaska.net/~ospic/.

[22] Department of Energy, Hanford Environmental Excellence, WWW: http://www.hanford.gov/.

[23] ImpactCS Home Page, WWW: http://www.seas.gwu.edu/seas/impactcs/index.html.

[24] AAAS. Professional Ethics Report. WWW: http://www.aaas.org/spp/dspp/sfrl/per.htm.

[25] Herkert, J. Course Syllabus: Technological Catastrophes, WWW: http://www4.ncsu.edu/unity/users/j/jherkert/mds322.html.

[26] Robinson, W. Course Syllabus: Ethics and the Internet, WWW: http://www.duke.edu/~wgrobin/ethics/.

[27] Abelson, H. and M. Fischer. Course Syllabus: Ethics and Law on the Electronic Frontier, WWW: http://wwwswiss.ai.mit.edu/6095/index.html.

[28] Loui, M. Course Syllabus: Engineering Ethics, WWW: http://www.cen.uiuc.edu/~ece216/home.html.

[29] Guthrie, R. Course Syllabus: Computer Ethics, WWW: http://newton.uor.edu/FacultyFolder/RGuthrie/courses/r415.html.

[30] Sears, A. and S. Watkins. 1996. "A Multimedia Manual on the World Wide Web for Telecommunications Equipment." IEEE Trans. on Education 39:342-348.

[31] Herkert, J. 1994. "Ethical Risk Assessment: Valuing Public Perceptions." IEEE Technology and Society 13(1):4-10.

Contact Information

Joseph R. Herkert
Division of Multidisciplinary Studies
North Carolina State University
Raleigh, North Carolina 27695-7107
Phone: 919-515-7997
Fax: 919-515-1828
E-mail: j.herkert@ieee.org



Biography

Joseph R. Herkert is Assistant Professor of Multidisciplinary Studies at North Carolina State University where he teaches in the Science, Technology and Society Program and a dual-degree program in engineering and humanities/social sciences. His research interests are in the areas of energy and environmental policy, engineering ethics, and social impacts of electronic media. He received his doctorate in Engineering and Policy from Washington University and his BSEE from Southern Methodist University. Dr. Herkert, a registered PE with five years experience as a consultant in the electric utility industry, is Past President of the IEEE Society on Social Implications of Technology.