Most engineers are proficient in numbers and calculations but may be less confident in the inexact world of business ethics. Two university programs are trying to change that. The Online Ethics Center for Engineering & Science, run by Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland, and the National Institute for Engineering Ethics (NIEE) at Texas Tech University, Lubbock, help current practitioners and future engineers confront ethical quandaries they might face.
The online ethics center, set up in 1995, is more proactive in helping callers with immediate situations. "We have an ethics help line," says Caroline Whitbeck, center director and a school ethics professor. "Engineers tend to have a problem with being naive, which can cause others to take advantage." The success of the center and its hotline has prompted the National Academy of Engineering to take over its funding and website maintenance next year, Whitbeck notes.
NIEE, in operation since 2001, seeks to help engineers deal with ethical and moral dilemmas through an educational approach, says Bill Lawson, deputy director and civil engineering professor at Texas Tech, who also teaches ethics courses. "We provide information and insight but they must make their own decisions," he says. "We help people clarify their moral thinking by highlighting the moral norms. This is the kind of information that needs to be considered in making a decision."
NIEE holds ethics-related workshops throughout the U.S. on such issues as "giftgiving." Lawson says the best approach is to make gifts as public as possible to reduce the appearance of wrongdoing.
Courses are also available to students. "We seek to introduce them to the philosophical side of ethics," says Lawson. "Students often think that everything is grey area. We try to help them see the issue clearly through norms and precedents."