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Virginia Tech develops engineering ethics curriculum

BLACKSBURG, VA.—Does the responsibility of an engineer cease after providing professional advice or does it involve additional advocacy? Consider such questions as whether oil fields should be established on the North Slope of Alaska, whether a renewed effort should be undertaken to build nuclear power plants, or whether a dam should be built that helps prevent flooding but severely impacts the environment? Virginia Tech faculty members from engineering, business, and philosophy posed the question of responsibility in a proposal to the National Science Foundation (NSF) to establish an interdisciplinary graduate curriculum in engineering ethics.

The NSF awarded $300,000 for the first three years of the Graduate Interdisciplinary Liberal Engineering Ethics Curriculum (GILEE). Virginia Tech is collaborating with Politecnico di Milano in Italy and Jadavpur University in India, which will assist in introducing global perspectives into the curriculum. North Carolina A&T State University, one of the historically black colleges and universities (HBCU) and the University of Illinois at Chicago will test courses developed by Virginia Tech. Graduate course offerings will begin at Virginia Tech during the spring semester, which begins Dec. 1, 2008.

The Virginia Tech proposal to the NSF states, "Engineering practices are increasingly interdisciplinary and operate in many organizational and societal contexts. Students will develop team, communication, ethical reasoning, societal and global contextual analysis skills, as well as interpersonal skills to work with experts from diverse disciplines, without sacrificing technical depth. Our inclusion of national and international testing sites assists in the dissemination of our educational project and its broader utility, particularly for adoption and adaptation. A broad-based dissemination plan covers engineering, humanities, and business disciplines. Our partnership with an HBCU and ongoing collaboration with the Office of Multicultural Affairs at Virginia Tech will help us recruit underrepresented faculty members, graduate students, and undergraduate seniors to take and enhance the GILEE curriculum."

The program will develop a course for graduate students and seniors interested in graduate school, which will consist of various ethics training modules; develop summer training workshops for students and for faculty members; develop a seminar series related to engineering ethics, which will be integrated with the 15-year program of business ethics seminars in the Pamplin College of Business; and include ethical issues in the Ph.D. preliminary examination and presentation of learning modules by graduate students during the examination.

Course topics will include the following:

  • The Social Construction of Technology;
  • Defining Emerging Technologies: Nano in Science and in Science Fiction, and History of the United States National Nanotechnology Initiative;
  • Politics and Policy: Comparisons of National "Ethics Policy" Programs around the World;
  • Ethical Implications: Environmental, Health and Safety Issues, Privacy and Security Issues, Human Enhancement Issues, and Equity and Access Issues; and
  • Sociotechnical Integration: The Role of Regulation, Role of the Public, Role of the Engineer, and Seamless Integration of Science and Society.