Using the Online Ethics Center for Engineering and Science
by: Michael S. Pritchard
Western Michigan University
I want to say just a few things from the standpoint of a contributor and user of the Online Ethics Center for Science and Engineering. I
think this is a very exciting development with the research ethics modules that
you're developing, and I think what's really nice about the Web site is that as
you're developing your products, so to speak, other people can participate in it. So
this helps the evaluation process and the quality of what's there. And I think that,
in general, ethics in science and engineering is a very dynamic, rapidly developing and
changing area or set of areas. One nice thing about the Web site is that you can put
something on, and you can change it. You can add to it. You can modify it. I think
that's very important.
I want to give a couple of other examples that I've been involved in. About five
years ago, I was invited to join Ted Goldfarb, who is an environmental chemist at
Stonybrook, to work on an ethics in science project. Ted was conducting summer institutes
for high school and middle school science teachers, with the aim of helping these teachers
come up with good ways of integrating ethics into their regular science classrooms. This
was at the pre-college level, and a very innovative, exciting endeavor.
I was invited to be a consultant on the project, and so I went to these institutes and
participated with 25 teachers each year. I was very excited about what I saw the teachers
doing. One of the things they had to do was develop some lesson plans that they would take
back to their schools, try them out in the classroom, and come back later in the year and
meet as a group and talk about them.
This went on for three years. At the end of that time, Ted and I thought: Well, this is
very exciting and very good —75 high school and middle school
teachers from Long Island. What about the rest of Long Island? What about the rest of the
United States? What about other places that might be interested? So we decided, since we
both had sabbatical leaves coming up, that we would create an instructional guide
for teachers; and we would try to represent, as best we could, the kinds of things that
went on in the institute.
We structure the text around these questions: Why bring ethics into science? Does it
belong there? What are some of the teaching problems that one has? What are some good case
studies, real cases, that help to emphasize this? What about really good sample lesson
plans that teachers can take into their classes and try out? So we put all of this
together. And then the question was: How do we get it out to the rest of the world so they
can see it?
The standard way is to publish a textbook. We thought about that for a while, but then
we consulted with some leading science educators around the country, and their suggestion
was: Put it on the Web because teachers will look for things like this. They'll find
it, and they can use it immediately. So that's what we did. And we have a little
corner on the Online Ethics Web site. If you go to the education tab, you can find the
pre-college materials. There you will find the equivalent of 180 pages of hard copy text
there and some other materials. Also, we invite teachers, or others who are interested in
this area, to make their own contributions.
At this point, I'd say we're just beginning, and Ted and I will have to work
pretty hard, I think, at getting teachers, the people who are actually using materials in
the classroom, to contribute to this, to help it to grow. I find this to be very exciting,
and the turn-around time is very short. If there are bad things there, they can be
changed. If there are things that are missing, they can be added. If there are people who
would like to join in this effort to try to figure out better ways of bringing ethics into
the classroom, they can join.
There is another section on the Web site called "Moral Leaders." I'm
particularly interested in this, because for a long time the cases that I used in my
engineering ethics classes were basically negative ones, failures, breakdowns, wrongdoing
and the sort. And I thought at some point: If things can go badly, can they go well? And
what would it be like to have good stories about exemplary practices? There were doubters
who thought: You can never come up with anything very interesting; we're only
interested in the bad stuff.
But in fact, Fred Cuny, who is featured there, was in the news a few years ago,
initially because of work that he and his associates had done in Sarejevo in restoring the
water system so that people wouldn't have to retrieve pails of water from the river,
which was heavily polluted, and wouldn't have to walk through the sniper zone. That
is a very exciting story, and Fred Cuny's entire career was devoted to disaster
relief work as an engineer. In Dallas, he established a disaster relief agency that
employs engineering skills.
In the second edition of a textbook on engineering ethics that I've written with
C. E. Harris and Michael Rabins there are features on Fred Cuny, William LeMessurier and
Roger Boisjoly, three of the moral leaders presented in the Moral Leaders section of the
Web site. What about if we want to talk about some other people? Well, there are six
people in that section right now, and the way in which the stories are presented is a good
supplement to what we have
A third connection I've had with the Online Ethics Web site involves a research
ethics project that the National Science Foundation has supported, involving graduate
students in the sciences. I've had the privilege of being one of the faculty members
in this project. In each of the past five summers there has been a summer institute on
research ethics at Indiana University for graduate students from around the country. One
of the products of each institute has been a volume of case studies and commentaries
developed by the students and institute faculty. These volumes are now on the Web site. We
could have tried getting a publisher to put these out, so two or three years later they
would have been out. But this delay seemed unnecessary and, given the uniqueness of the
project, undesirable. Most of the workshops that have been conducted on research ethics
have been for faculty. Ours was for graduate students. What we quickly learned is that the
perspectives of graduate students add a valuable dimension to the problems of research
ethics—a dimension that deserves immediate attention, rather than having to suffer
through the delays of the standard publication process
Finally, a few years ago Michael Rabins (Mechanical Engineering, Texas A&M)
organized an NSF supported summer institute to develop case studies in engineering ethics
that involve numerical analysis. Very few of the published case studies in engineering
ethics require numerical analysis. But what about ethical problems that arise when one is
in the middle of a technical problem that requires numerical analysis? How can engineering
faculty help their students integrate ethical reflection into their technical analyses?
The institute brought together more than 20 engineering faculty, along with a few ethics
faculty, to develop case studies that could be placed directly into standard engineering
courses. More than 40 cases were developed and placed on the Texas A&M engineering
ethics Web site. They are now also on the Online Ethics Web site, making them more readily
noticeable to a wider audience.
Of course, as useful materials are developed in various places, they can be put on
local Web sites. However, making them directly available on the Online Ethics Web site contributes significantly to
their becoming known by and made use of by a much greater number of faculty, students,
scientists, engineers and others who are interested ethics in science and engineering.
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