Engineering Ethics Update
MAY 1998


Message from the Past President
Philip E. Ulmer, P.E.

Giving Birth to a Professional (Volunteer-led) Engineering Institute

Just like myself, I am sure that each one of our NIEE members is an active member of another professional engineering, or similarly related, society. Having served for many years on the Board of Directors, and for one year as national president of the American Society of Safety Engineers, I relate to the importance of ensuring that members truly understand what their dues are being used for and what each member gets in return for their annual investment. As I am now engaged in my tenure as NIEE president, let me relate to you my thoughts about our collective investment in NIEE.

Your NIEE Board of Directors is cognizant that most of our engineering societies have their own internal ethics and professional conduct committee. NIEE does not intend to replace or be an alternative to these efforts, but to serve as a complementary resource and a clearinghouse of engineering ethics knowledge. As we continue to grow and mature as an organization, our ultimate aim is to be a catalyst for positive interaction and change, where necessary, the ethics issues.

But before we can achieve all of this, we must grow and mature as an independently managed and financed institution.

We each pay dues to NIEE and to other societies and association. While established organizations like NSPE, IEEE, AIAA, ASCE, ASME and others too numerous to mention have a long history of providing member services, NIEE has just been given birth (by comparison) and is now trying to gain its personality and identity in the engineering and engineering related professions. While our membership is presently small, our dues investment is being put to good use to allow us to grow and become a viable contributor to the profession.

In the area of actual hardware, tangible services, NIEE is continuing to market its internationally renown video, Gilbane Gold, and is continuing to develop and further refine its web page ( where an inquirer can get information on ethics related articles, books and case histories. These services are being provided through many hours of efforts by contributing members of NIEE. The Long Range Plan of our institute (published in our last newsletter) details other service areas that are targets for development.

The effective management of NIEE's limited resources is a high priority for NIEE's Board of Directors. Together, we are attempting to develop the first standing committee infrastructure of the institute and seeking long term solutions for day-to-day service management. NIEE currently has no facility assets nor full-time professional staffing. Through historical connections with NSPE, we are receiving some limited assistance in this area. However, we are continuing to strive toward a self-sustaining mode of operation.

So, what are you getting for your dues? Opportunities for tapping into some of the tangible resources, including this newsletter, is the simple answer. I like to also believe our dues are investing in the development of a very young professional society we call NIEE. As a member, your investment in this way makes you a pioneer with the rest of us in seeing our institute grow to its fullest extent. We have been in existence for less than four years under our constitution and articles of incorporation. As members who choose to invest our dues to NIEE, we must be collectively patient as we go through the growing pains of self-management and providing a catalog of services.

I welcome your thoughts as we progress this year. My e-mail address is below -- drop me a line. Some of you have already done this and have offered your talents in service to NIEE. I have referred your offers to others on our Board who need some help with some of their individual assignments. Down the road, we will need members to actively participate on committees and with special assignments. If we don't tap into your offer immediately, be patient, there will be ample opportunity at the appropriate time. In the next edition of the newsletter, it is my hope to announce the committee infrastructure I referred to earlier. Our Board of Directors will be meeting again later this year to continue the progress toward achieving our destiny.

Help us gain new members, information on membership and dues information is elsewhere in this newsletter and also was printed in previous edition.

Philip E. Ulmer

An Hour of Glory
by Thomas Ask, P.E., Vice President Engineering, Odin System International, Inc.

The ship Vasa stood as a marvel of the Swedish Empire. A strong hull of thick oak carried two rows of cannon and intricate wood carvings. She was a savage fortress on the Baltic Sea. Her maiden voyage on August 10, 1628 started out well, the wind filled her sails and she moved into Stockholm's archipelago. A moderate gust of wind came upon the vessel and she heeled in response. Unfortunately, the heeling brought the lower cannon ports to the waterline and she started taking on water. Soon the hull was flooded and she sank quickly killing up to fifty people. Only her masts stuck above the water, visible from Stockholm, to mock her nation.

The cold waters of the Baltic prevented shipwork destruction and now the Vasa sits in a striking museum in Stockholm, the most beautifully preserved ship of the 17th century. The Vasa is an attractive ship, skillfully built, powerfully armed but poorly designed. The beam and ballast provided insufficient stability. The designer (a Dutchman, as Swedes will readily point out) never knew of the demise of his creation having died before the sinking. But he joined the ranks of designers of the St. Pierre Cathedral, Titanic, Tacoma Narrows Bridge and others who are only remembered for their failures. In a twisted corollary to 'the pen is mightier than the sword,' poor design sunk this powerful warship.

Prior to setting sail, a stability test had been conducted on the ship by having men run back and forth across her decks in resonance. This test indicated that she was unstable but no authority took action to address the problem. The dilemmas that people in the know face is ageless. When they do not act on their understandings they sometimes are lucky and sometimes are not. In the end, painful honesty is always better than optimistic deception. However, we know that another ageless phenomenon is that reprisals are often the price of honesty, and this is what we must strive to change.

NIEE Involved in Russian Ethics Program  

During the past two years, NIEE Past President Jimmy H. Smith, P.E. has been the NIEE representative on a team project being funded by the National Science Foundation . The intention of this project is to assist Russian educators in developing methods of teaching ethics to Russian engineering students. The project is managed by Harry Tollerton at the American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE). Others involved in the project include Dr. Vivian Weil (member of the NIEE Board of Directors) from Illinois Institute of Technology, Dr. Deborah Johnson (former member of the NIEE Board of Directors) from Rensselaer Polytech Institute, Frank Huband of ASEE, and Mark Frankel of AAAS.

This team will travel to Moscow for the third and last time in June 1998 to conduct a final workshop. Prior workshops were conducted in May and December 1997 at the Moscow Aviation Institute and the Moscow Institute of Philosophy. All team members have provided suggestions for the goals and objectives in teaching engineering ethics. The following are suggestions recently submitted to Russia by Jimmy Smith to form one focus to the June 1998 workshop in Moscow. These are included in this newsletter in the hope that those interested in engineering ethics education in the US might also benefit.

Suggestions to Russia on Objectives in Teaching Engineering Ethics
by Jimmy H. Smith, Ph.D., P.E. 

The suggested objectives to Russian Engineers and Educators are similar to those used in the ethics class at Texas Tech. They are based on the text "Ethics in Engineering," by Martin & Schinzinger, 3rd Edition, McGraw-Hill.

The overall Objectives are:

  1. to review and understand the responsibilities that the engineer accepts when practicing the profession,
  2. to provide an opportunity to explore various ethical aspects of the profession,
  3. to become comfortable and confident in using professional value systems and codes, and
  4. to practice effective expression of ethical concepts in engineering practice.

Title and Objectives of Course Lessons:

Lesson 1: Scope and Aims of Engineering Ethics

a. that the student understand the meaning of engineering ethics and the three types of inquiries: normative, conceptual and descriptive,

b. that the student develop a basic knowledge of the history of engineering, particularly as it relates to the development of professional societies,

c. to enrich the students' understanding of the nature of moral problems and issues in engineering so that he or she will be able to develop reasoned responses to these problems, and

d. to foster in the student a sense of moral autonomy.

Lesson 2: Moral Reasoning and Ethical Theories

a. that the student understand utilitarianism, duty theories, rights theories and virtue theories,

b. to foster in the student a sense of moral autonomy.

Lesson 3: Engineering as Social Experimentation

a. that the student develop an understanding and appreciation of the concept of engineers acting as responsible agents: conscientious commitment to live by moral values, a disposition to maintain a comprehensive perspective on the context and possible consequences of one's actions, autonomous, personal involvement in one's activities and acceptance of accountability for one's conduct,

b. that the student understand the roles professional societies play: inspiration, guidance, support for responsible conduct, deterring and disciplining unethical professional conduct, education and promotion of mutual understanding, contributing to a positive public image of the profession, protecting the status quo and suppressing dissent within the profession, and promoting business interests through restraint of trade,

c. that the student develop a balanced outlook towards the law, especially as it relates to engineering practice.

Lesson 4: The Engineer's Responsibility for Safety

a. that the student understand the concepts of safety, risk, benefit and cost as they relate to technology,

b. that the student appreciate the uncertainties, complexities and consequences of cost/risk/benefit analysis and for providing the public with a balanced report of this analysis.

Lesson 5: Responsibilities to Employers

a. that the student develop personal concepts as to the nature of professions and professional responsibility,

b. that the student understands and is able to differentiate between institutional authority and expert authority,

c. that the student understand the relationships between conflicts of interest, unionism and white-collar crime as they relate to professional conduct.

Lesson 6: Rights of Engineers

a. that the student understand human rights, professional rights and employee rights as elements of moral rights,

b. that the student understands the concepts, responsibilities and consequences of whistle-blowing and what constitutes moral permission for the act.

Lesson 7: Global Issues

a. that the student understand ethical conventionalism, descriptive relativism and moral relationalism,

b. that the student become aware of global issues in technology which have strong ethical concerns and consequences.

Lesson 8: Engineers as Managers, Consultants and Leaders

a. that the student understand the conflict between the existential pleasures offered by engineering and the responsibilities of the engineers personal conscience,

b. that the student recognize an engineer's responsibility to his/her peers, the community, the profession and the professional society,

c. that the student appreciate engineering professionalism as it relates to work ethics, integrity and self-respect, models of professional roles, optimization, advertising, competitive bidding, contingency fees, safety and client needs and the resolution of disputes.

Lesson 9: Codes of Ethics

a. that the student become familiar with a number of codes of ethics and conduct of a variety of professional engineering societies,

b. that the student develop an understanding of the guidance that can be gained from an application of codes and knowledge to real situations.

Suggestions for Developing Case Studies in Russia
by Jimmy H. Smith, Ph.D., P.E. 

The goals of teaching ethics have been effectively presented by Drs. Vivian Weil and Deborah Johnson. I fully agree with what they have presented. Those goals, coupled with the objectives which I have suggested above, will result in valuable ethics courses for many students.

However, for engineering students, a study of Ethics Case Studies will greatly enhance their interest and understanding. Therefore, I suggest that Russian educators and engineers would be greatly assisted if Russians were to come up with case studies directly related with situations encountered in their country. To do this, the following steps are suggested:

1. Form a group of seven Russians. Perhaps call the group the Russian Board of Ethical Review for Engineering and be made up of three philosophers, three engineers and one attorney.

2. The engineers and attorney should be chosen who are highly respected in Russia. This Board should develop a plan or strategy; some suggestions follow:

* Obtain or develop a set of ethical principles to provide guidance to Russian engineers and engineering students

* Solicit ethical issues or problems (Case Studies) from the engineering community in Russia

* Publish the Case Studies as 'Opinions of the Russian Board of Ethical Review for Engineering'

* Distribute the results widely among engineering colleges and engineering societies in Russia.

The Russian Board might find ideas from the format and information contained in the NSPE Opinions of the Board of Ethical Review. Over 130 of these cases are obtainable from the World Wide Web at the web site of the National Institute for Engineering Ethics (

The above suggestions come from nine years of experience in teaching ethics to engineering students and in presenting hundreds of short courses, workshops and seminars on ethics to practicing engineers. Without some actual (or simulated) cases to focus their attention on, engineering students and engineers will often lose interest in the philosophical nature of the study of ethics.

Jimmy H. Smith, Ph.D., P.E.
Professor of Civil Engineering and Director
Murdough Center for Engineering Professionalism
Texas Tech University
Phone: 806/742-3525
Fax: 806/742-0444

Making Ethics Stick
by Tobin Dunham

1st Place, Semi-Annual Bovey Essay Competition, Texas A&M University, Spring 1998

 Many achievements have been made in the last decade concerning engineering ethics. Perhaps the most important is that educators have begun to realize the need for structured methods to teach ethical problem-solving techniques to engineering students. As in any academic environment, this leads to the birth of new course work for students: Engineering Ethics. Although this is a step in the right direction, there is a challenging obstacle. Students, who are frequently overloaded with technical classes and demanding schedules, tend to forget the subject matter after they complete the course. In other words, students perform a brain dump at the end of the semester in order to make room for their new classes. This is rarely intentional. Rather, students must prioritize the information that they store in their heads. The subjects they feel are most important are retained and others are forgotten.

Similarly, when students enter their professional careers, they begin to leave their education behind, and these ethical problem-solving methods begin to fade from memory. Knowledge that is gained in one semester simply is note retained unless it is used frequently. This applies to any subject, including ethics. Therefore, the pertinent questions are: How can educators make ethics a top priority to students? How can educators help students retain their ethical resolution skills throughout their professional careers?

The solution to this dilemma lies in the definition of the problem. Students cannot be expected to learn a subject in one semester and retain it their entire lives. Therefore, the solution is to expand the educational scope of engineering ethics. Instead of limiting ethics to one class, educators should be discussing it in every engineering course. This does not imply that instructors should be teaching ethical analysis and resolution methods in technical classes. That should be left to the dedicated ethics course. Instead, all classes should have frequent discussions during the semester about situations concerning that specific course, which could have ethical considerations. For example, in a structural analysis/design class, the instructor could cite examples of unethical design practices in the past, the outcomes of these decisions and alternative choices that could have been made. In a project management class, the instructor could cite examples of unethical management techniques, as well as the proper ethical methods involved with being a project manager. These are only a few examples of what instructors can do to reinforce ethical training in other classes.

In order for students to obtain a firm grasp on ethical analysis and resolution, they must be frequently challenged with such topics. This would serve to build a fundamental understanding of ethical problem-solving, which would stay with the student. It can be said that rarely used knowledge quickly becomes forgotten. So it follows that emphasis should be placed on retention of ethical resolution techniques. Solving ethical dilemmas is something that engineers must face every day of their professional careers, regardless of how minor they are. When making these decisions or solving problems, engineers need to be able to call on their consciences, as well as their extensive training, to deal with these problems. To make these kinds of decisions on a day-to-day basis, engineers need to be able to pull these ethical resolution techniques from memory.

The implementation of such a change in the academic environment would not be a minor ordeal. It would necessarily involve cooperation between different departments, colleges and universities. But remember, educators are responsible for shaping and molding the engineers of the future. As these students prepare to enter the 21st century, they will be faced with many challenges of new technology, global business ventures, and maintaining the environment, as well as repairing environmental damage done by their predecessors. If the future of the engineering profession is to be successful, then present-day students need to understand the importance that ethical analysis plays in their careers. This simply cannot be stressed enough in a single course. Ethics must be reinforced throughout the student's academic careers in order for them to carry it with them through their professional careers.

Freese and Nichols, Inc.
Ethical Conduct Policy 

Editor's Note: Various codes of ethics will be published from time to time for information purposes. If you are willing to share your code, please send it to Robert L. Nichols, P.E., One South Main, Webb City, MO 64870. The sharing of codes will be a beneficial exchange of information.


The foundation of a professional firm such as Freese and Nichols is ethical practice. In order to accomplish this goal, Freese and Nichols is committed to working with our clients, other firms and organizations in an ethical and professional manner. This requires that every employee by equally committed to ethics and perform their job with high standards of ethics. The firm has undergone many changes during its century of service, but the basic ethical principles have not changed. In earlier years when the firm was much smaller, the staff learned ethical values by the example and mentorship of the founding Principals. As the company continues to grow, it is essential that a written code of ethics be furnished to the staff to provide guidance as they carry out their day-to-day responsibilities.

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