Op-Ed: Ethical considerations in engineering

When peers in my English classes hear I’m an engineer, they often say “oh, you’re not an English major?” in a skeptical tone. I wasn’t exactly sure what made me seem like an English major but I took it as a compliment; however, it made me think about what has set me apart from other engineers. After taking almost three full years of engineering courses (with women’s and gender studies and English courses sprinkled in) I think I have come to an answer: my major has taught me to think differently than my engineering peers of other disciplines. Now, this is not to say that other engineers are less intelligent or are worse critical thinkers, but rather that the Lafayette Engineering Department does not take ethics within engineering seriously enough to concretely implement it in the coursework. 

Engineering ethics is the system of moral principles as they apply to the practice of engineering. In the courses outlined for mechanical, electrical and computer, chemical, and civil engineering, consideration of engineering ethics is “worked into their courses,” and while they must take a course to satisfy their “values” credit for the Common Course of Study, they have the opportunity to take any course they wish. As an integrative engineer, I am required to take EGRS 251: Engineering and Public Policy, and it has impacted every engineering decision I have made since. We discussed advancements in engineering, but we mostly focused on who we were affecting with our decisions and if those effects were positive or negative for those populations. After taking this course, I expected this knowledge to be commonly understood among engineers within the other majors who didn’t require the same courses as mine. I was shocked when I discovered otherwise. 

Due to my major being at the intersection of mechanical engineering, electrical engineering and engineering studies courses, I have seen the various ways the departments have handled teaching engineering ethics. In my time I have never seen more than basic ethics covered, let alone a full impact analysis of the decisions or the individual responsibilities you have when working at a company. The amount of technical knowledge we engineers have awards us so much power to make decisions that contribute to projects that can have large-scale impacts. Being at a liberal arts college, I expected all engineers to gain these skills, but it has become increasingly obvious that the age-old engineering trades have not begun to update their courses to match the developments and changes made in society. So, I pose the question, how are engineers from a liberal arts college expected to enter the workforce without any regard for the impact of their decisions? This question can easily be answered on the third floor of Acopian as we proudly display Lockheed Martin as one of our top employers for electrical engineers. 

Mia Powell ’24 is an integrative engineering major with a concentration in robotics and a minor in English. She works in the Visual Resource Department as a Technician working on virtual reality technology.