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Sustaining Ethical Engineering

When Samiha Mourad, William and Janice Terry Professor of electrical engineering, was developing the School of Engineering’s master’s program in sustainable energy, she knew ethics would be an important part of the curriculum—not peripherally, but in a way that would further the University’s commitment to ethics and excellence in Jesuit education. So she reached out to Shannon Vallor, associate professor of philosophy, whose classes on the philosophy of science and technology and research in ethics of emerging technologies made her the perfect candidate to create a new course, Sustainable Energy and Ethics, offered for the first time this fall.

ethics“This course differs from traditional ethics courses taught within the philosophy department,” said Vallor, “in that it does not focus so heavily on the theory of ethics, but rather on how ethics enter into the practice of engineering in regard to sustainability. The lion’s share of the work in this course involves practice in thinking seriously about ethics in a professional setting—getting students in the habit of thinking this way with other engineers as opposed to merely hearing a professor talk about it. Engineers are problem solvers,” she continued, “and in class we examine ethical responses to problems while recognizing that we are not solving and putting away ethics; we must be responding all the time. The students are learning how that kind of problem response works.”

Vallor was eager to take on the challenge of developing and teaching this course for engineers. “Some of the best students in my philosophy courses come from engineering,” she said; “they understand ethics from the point of analysis—they are used to logical assessment of how things hang together. I always wanted more engineers in my courses as they bring a unique way of thinking and often raise the bar for the rest of the class. Now, it’s fun to infiltrate their territory!”