Teaching Ethics in Light of Flint and Volkswagen
No two stories from 2015 captured the importance of teaching ethics to our graduates better than the Flint Water Crisis and the Volkswagen Emissions Scandal. So ABET brought together two of the professors who uncovered these stories, Marc Edwards (Flint Crisis) and Arvind Thiruvengadam (Volkswagen Scandal), to talk about why we need to teach ethics in STEM programs.
Edwards’ message to the audience was loud and clear: “Rule number one is don’t ask permission. If you see something that’s wrong you have to act,” the Virginia Tech professor said, speaking directly to students. “Had we not acted back in August 2015, those kids in Flint would still be drinking that water.”
During Great Minds, Greater Impact at the 2016 ABET Symposium, Edwards was adamant about the importance of ethics in STEM programs. During our panel discussion, he spent a great deal of the talk urging educators to rethink how they were teaching the subject.
“It is a deeply philosophical approach. Students are given black and white examples. They are taught that if you follow the rules, things will work out for you. That’s not true. Ethical dilemmas in the real world are gut-wrenching, life-altering experiences,” the Virginia Tech professor said, very much based on his own experiences.
While everyone on stage, including science correspondent for NPR Joe Palca and Steve Cramer, Vice Provost for Teaching and Learning at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, agreed that giving students the tools to deal with ethical dilemmas was critical, the discussion dug into how educators can deliver such a complex lesson.
Great Minds, Greater Impact – Full Video
“What kind of training? Or is there any training for students to understand the ethics of right and wrong in their society,” asked Palca, the panel’s moderator. “Because it’s hard—I’m imagining—to take on a large institution as Marc has.”
For Thiruvengadam, keeping students focused on why they chose to pursue a discipline in the first place makes a difference.
“I think most of the students—including when I was a student—we lost the big picture of why we are doing certain things. I think that’s where the problem stems from,” Thiruvengadam reflected. “If you look at the emissions perspective, the effects are long-term. You don’t know in 20 years, 30 years, whether the things that you’re doing are going to make a change. But you work toward a cause.”
He believes that getting an interdisciplinary perspective can help students to realize the social impact of their work, and in turn broaden their awareness.
“You can probably pick a handful of students who know why we are trying to achieve low emissions,” he said, describing the students in his lab. “The very few of them that get to interact with atmospheric people or toxicity people, they realize there are health implications, there are environmental implications—that is why we are working.”
Teaching students about the social contexts of their work and the consequences for the environment is one aspect of the challenge, but students also need to be taught how to recognize an ethically questionable situation and know to act.
“You have to think carefully, as these decision points come, what you’re going to do when you get into these dilemmas,” Cramer said, bringing an administrative perspective to the conversation. “Often when you’re there, you don’t know how big the issue is, you don’t have the benefit of hindsight, and you have to make a call.”
Stories like Flint and Volkswagen have brought a new sense of urgency when it comes to the need to incorporate the teaching of ethics in technical education. But knowing how to teach it remains a difficult question.
As Edwards so eloquently puts it, making the ethical decision ultimately comes down to having the will to act. “You have to reach a critical mass of moral courage, and in Flint we did that.”
ABET is a forward-thinking, purpose-driven organization recognized by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation. All over the world, ABET accredits college and university technical programs committed to the quality of the education they provide their students.
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