To better understand how improved understanding of uncertainty and probability concepts in an engineering systems context would affect undergraduate engineering students’ perceptions of professional responsibility and ethics as well as personal agency (one’s ability to affect the outcome of events), an assessment of these principles was conducted during a related course.

A course entitled Engineering Risk Analysis was offered and conducted with a mix of undergraduate Mechanical Engineering, Chemical Engineering, Petroleum Engineering, Environmental Systems Engineering, and Architectural Engineering students. This course presented and trained students in the use of system analysis techniques from the disciplines of Reliability Engineering, Policy Analysis, and Economics for understanding how uncertain circumstances interact with technological systems to produce failures and disasters.

As engineering systems become increasingly complex and command greater quantities of energy, the risk of failures even when very rare, become much more severe. While there have been previous initiatives to increase engineering students’ understanding of statistics, probability, and risk, usually in response to previous disasters, this preliminary study is the first to begin to examine how this kind of knowledge affects engineering student’s perceptions of ethics, responsibility, and their concept of how their own individual decisions affect the potential for the failure of complex systems and the consequences of such failures.

Students completed 5 regular survey-based assessments to judge their qualitative and quantitative skills, personal perceptions of the causes of engineering failures, and the professional and ethical responsibilities of engineers. Analysis of the response variance and a linear regression model demonstrated some significant effects after controlling for education, age, and professional work experience.

Results indicate that questions related to probabilistic understanding of risk demonstrated the most significant change during the course. Indicators of agreement with strong professional ethics and greater professional responsibility as well as personal agency did not significantly change during the course. More importantly, while personal choices on risk did not appear to reflect one’s view of how engineers actually do or should treat questions of risk professionally, the amount of previous technical work experience showed a small positive association with increased agreement on statements of ethical responsibility towards workers and the public. These findings suggest that future research is needed to assess the types of instruction and personal experience that can best encourage the combination of strong ethical responsibility and personal agency that could empower engineering students to act when they have the opportunity to reduce risk to workers, the public, or the environment.

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