Building ethical engineering leaders: public welfare awareness in graduate education

A new NSF-funded project will result in a unique engineering graduate course on professional responsibility

Where does the power and responsibility lie when a company is developing technology that may be harmful to the public? A new project, funded by the National Science Foundation, aims to teach engineers that the responsibility lies with them—and empower them to take action.

Cech and Finelli Enlarge
Erin Cech, Cindy Finelli

Erin Cech and Cindy Finelli, faculty in the departments of sociology and electrical engineering and computer science at the University of Michigan, are designing a new master’s-level course to address what they view as a hole in the education of engineering students in the area of professional responsibility. 

“The technological systems that we all live with are far more complicated than most lay persons can understand,” said Cech, an assistant professor of sociology in the College of Literature, Science and the Arts. “Engineers understand the technologies well enough to know what they’re potentially capable of, and possibly even how to help reduce the public welfare issues that may arise from them.”

The recent events at Google involving the firings of two members of its Ethical Artificial Intelligence Team demonstrate that these issues are far from settled. Cech and Finelli discussed the new project that delves into these issues.

Why is there a need to improve engineering students’ understanding of public welfare and how their work impacts that? 


It’s such an important issue right now because we’re seeing reports of inequalities built into the algorithms of surveillance technology, web searches and facial recognition—where engineers are at the forefront of processes that potentially reinforce and reproduce existing socio-demographic inequalities. 

I published a study in 2014 that found that as undergraduate students moved through their education, they actually became less concerned with their public welfare responsibilities than they were when they started their engineering programs, suggesting that their educational experiences actually tamp down that concern.

Taking into account issues of inequality and other social issues must be part of the understanding of problem definition and problem solution in engineering. Engineering programs need to teach students how to take these things seriously, as well as provide spaces for technical professionals in the workplace to talk about issues and potential solutions.


We’ve been talking about this issue already in Electrical and Computer Engineering, and it aligns with our departments’ efforts. Mingyan Liu, chair of electrical and computer engineering, is already planning to launch a required professional responsibility seminar course for master’s students. Our NSF project will provide research-informed content for that new course.

As we’ve seen with the recent firings on Google’s Ethical Artificial Intelligence Team, upholding ethics and keeping your job can be challenging. How do you envision this course addressing that?   


Whistleblowers are often vulnerable to retaliatory action. What happened at Google is just one especially high-profile example. What our course will aim to do is teach engineers not only to understand what whistleblowing means—including its benefits and risks—but the range of options they have available to them for raising public welfare and ethics concerns. One of the most under-recognized and under-utilized mechanisms for raising ethical issues is through professional societies. Our course will help engineers understand the importance of seeking collective statements and actions with other technical professionals, rather than acting as lone whistleblowers. 


This example is exactly the type of situation we hope to address, and I can imagine using this as an in-class case study to foster student discussion. Yes, it can be challenging to uphold your ethics, but we hope our course will not only help future professionals recognize situations that may negatively impact society, but will also help them identify and act on effective strategies to address those situations. 

Why are you beginning with a course for master’s students, as opposed to undergraduate students, for example?


We are focused on professionals who typically lead technical design teams in the workforce. For the most part, those are engineers who have master’s degrees or higher. 

Also, there’s a fair bit of research into the ethics education of undergraduates and graduates in PhD programs. Ethics and social responsibility research related to education of master’s students is comparatively lacking. Yet, there are many people in the United States graduating with master’s degrees in engineering and going straight into the workforce.

What do you expect to learn during the study, and how will that information be used?


For the first part of the study, we will interview a cohort of electrical and computer engineering master’s students to understand what they learned about professional responsibility when they were undergrads, as well as what they are learning as master’s students. We will re-interview them again once they have graduated and entered the workforce.

For the second part of the study, we’ll survey a representative sample of engineers in the US workforce. The survey will ask them a variety of questions, such as: how important is your responsibility to public welfare, how were you trained in these things, if at all, and what happened when you encountered public welfare concerns in the workplace?

We’re interested in the kinds of things that engineers see in their jobs, and the ways that they wish they would have been trained to be able to grapple with the kinds of social responsibility issues that they encounter.

Based on the results from these two studies, Cindy and I will develop a seminar for graduate students that will train them to recognize public welfare responsibilities as part of their professional responsibilities, as well as teach them strategies for action when they do encounter public welfare issues. It will help them understand when we should act and what tactics we should use to respond to potentially unethical technology. 


I think we’ll learn a lot when we do the survey of professionals and master’s students and will get a better understanding of what’s missing in their education. 

It may be that communicating better with the public is something that’s currently missing, for instance, but it could also be that there are opportunities to give students a broader understanding of societal implications of their work or equip them with strategies they might use to raise difficult ethical issues. Whatever the case, we think this effort will help promote better ethical responsibilities and will be useful for engineers across the disciplines.


At the heart of the project, we are promoting education practices for engineers that encourage them to think critically about the social implications of their work, rather than allowing the work of engineers to be guided by the cultural and political and social whims of the companies they work for.

The NSF project is titled Advancing Engineers’ Ability to Recognize, Strategize About, and Act On Concerns Related to Public Welfare.

Cech also holds a courtesy appointment in the Department of Mechanical Engineering. Finelli is also Director of the graduate program in Engineering Education Research, and holds a courtesy appointment in the U-M School of Education.

Cynthia Finelli; Education; Engineering Education Research; Research News