Author: Dr. Natalie Wint (UCL). 

Topic: Responsibility for micro- and nano-plastics in the environment and human bodies.  

Engineering disciplines: Chemical Engineering; Environmental Engineering; Materials Engineering; Mechanical Engineering. 

Ethical issues: Corporate social responsibility; Power; Safety; Respect for the Environment. 

Professional situations: Whistleblowing; Company growth; Communication; Public health and safety. 

Educational level: Intermediate. 

Educational aim: Becoming Ethically Sensitive: being broadly cognizant of ethical issues and having the ability to see how these issues might affect others. 

 

Learning and teaching notes: 

This case study involves a young engineering student on an industrial placement year at a firm that manufactures cosmetics. The student has been working hard to impress the company as they are aware that this may lead to them being offered a job upon graduation. They are involved in a big project that focuses on alternative, more environmentally friendly cosmetic chemistries. When they notice a potential problem with the new formulation, they must balance their commitment towards environmental sustainability with their desire to work for the company upon graduation.  

This dilemma can be addressed from a micro-ethics point of view by analysing personal ethics, intrinsic motivations and moral values. It can also be analysed from a macro-ethics point of view, by considering corporate responsibility and intergenerational justice. The dilemma can also be framed to emphasise global responsibility and environmental justice whereby the engineers consider the implications of their decisions on global communities and future generations.  

This case study addresses two of the themes from the Accreditation of Higher Programmes fourth edition (AHEP4): The Engineer and Society (acknowledging that engineering activity can have a significant societal impact) and Engineering Practice (the practical application of engineering concepts, tools and professional skills). To map this case study to AHEP outcomes specific to a programme under these themes, access AHEP 4 here and navigate to pages 30-31 and 35-37. 

The dilemma in this case is presented in two parts. If desired, a teacher can use Part one in isolation, but Part two develops and complicates the concepts presented in Part one to provide for additional learning. The case allows teachers the option to stop at multiple points for questions and / or activities, as desired.

Learners have the opportunity to:   

Teachers have the opportunity to:    

 

Learning and teaching resources: 

Professional organisations: 

EU agencies: 

Industry publications: 

EU law: 

 

Dilemma – Part one: 

Microplastics are solid plastic particles composed of mixtures of polymers and functional additives; they also contain residual impurities. Microplastics generally fall into two groups: those that are unintentionally formed as a result of the wear and tear of larger pieces of plastic, and those that are deliberately manufacturedand added to products for specific purposes (primary microplastics). Microplastics are intentionally added to a range of products including cosmetics, in which they act as abrasives and can control the thickness, appearance, and stability of a product.  

Legislation pertaining to the use of microplastics varies worldwide and several loopholes in the regulations have been identified. Whilst many multinational companies have fought the introduction of such regulations, other stakeholders have urged for the use of the precautionary principle, suggesting that all synthetic polymers should be regulated in order to prevent significant damage to both the environment and human health. 

Recently, several changes to the regulation of microplastics have been proposed within Europe. One that affects the cosmetics industry particularly concerns the intentional addition of microplastics to cosmetics. Manufacturers, especially those who export their products, have therefore been working to change their products. 

 

Optional STOP for questions and activities:  

1. Discussion: Professional values – What ethical principles and codes of conduct are applicable to the use of microplastics? Should these change or be applied differently when the microplastics are used in products that may be swallowed or absorbed through the eyes or skin?

2. Activity: Research some of the current legislation in place surrounding the use of microplastics. Focus on the strengths and limitations of such legislation.  

3. Activity: Technical integration – Research the potential health and environmental concerns surrounding microplastics. Investigate alternative materials and/or technological solutions to the microplastic ‘problem’.  

4. Discussion: Familiarise yourself with the precautionary principle. What are the advantages and disadvantages of applying the precautionary principle in this situation?  

 

Dilemma – Part two: 

Alex is a young engineering student on an industrial placement year at a firm that manufactures cosmetics. The company has been commended for their sustainable approach and Alex is really excited to have been offered a role that involves work aligned with their passion. They are working hard to impress the company as they are aware that this may lead to them being offered a job upon graduation.  

Alex is involved in a big project that focuses on alternative, more environmentally friendly cosmetic chemistries. Whilst working in the formulation laboratory, they notice that some of the old filler material has been left near the preparation area. The container is not securely fastened, and residue is visible in the surrounding area. The filler contains microplastics and has recently been taken out of products. However, it is still in stock so that it could be used for comparative testing, during which the performance of traditional, microplastic containing formulations are compared to newly developed formulations. It is unusual for the old filler material to be used outside of the testing laboratory and Alex becomes concerned about the possibility that the microplastics have been added to a batch of the new product that had been made the previous day. They raise the issue to their supervisor, asking whether the new batch should be quarantined.  

“We wouldn’t ever hold such a large, lucrative order based on an uncertainty like that,” the supervisor replies, claiming that even if there was contamination it wasn’t intentional and would therefore not be covered by the legislation. “Besides, most of our products go to countries where the rules are different.” 

Alex mentions the health and environmental issues associated with microplastics, and the reputation the company has with customers for being ethical and sustainable. They suggest that they bring the issue up with the waste and environmental team who have expertise in this area.  

Their supervisor replies: “Everyone knows that the real issue is the microplastics that are formed from disintegration of larger plastics. Bringing up this issue is only going to raise questions about your competence.”  

 

Optional STOP for questions and activities: 

1. Discussion: Personal values – What competing personal values or motivations might trigger an internal conflict for Alex? 

2. Activity: Research intergenerational justice and environmental justice. How do they relate to this case? 

3. Activity: Identify all potential stakeholders and their values, motivations, and responsibilities. 

4. Discussion: Consider both the legislation in place and the RAEng/Engineering Council Ethical Principles. What should Alex do according to each of these? Is the answer the same for both? If not, which set of guidance is more important? 

5. Discussion: How do you think the issue of microplastics should be controlled? 

6. Activity: Alex and their boss are focused on primary microplastics. Consider the lifecycle of bulk plastics and the various stakeholders involved. Who should be responsible for the microplastics generated during the disintegration of plastic products?

7. Discussion: What options for action does Alex have available to them? What are the advantages and disadvantages of each approach? What would you do if you were Alex? 

8. Activity: Technical integration related to calculations or experiments on microplastics. 

 

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Any views, thoughts, and opinions expressed herein are solely that of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions, policies, or position of the Engineering Professors’ Council or the Toolkit sponsors and supporters.


Author:
Wendy Attwell (Engineering Professors’ Council).

Topic: Balancing personal values and professional conduct in the climate emergency. 

Engineering disciplines: Civil engineering; Energy and Environmental engineering; Energy. 

Ethical issues: Respect for the environment; Justice; Accountability; Social responsibility; Risk; Sustainability; Health; Public good; Respect for the law; Future generations; Societal impact. 

Professional situations: Public health and safety; Communication; Law / Policy; Integrity; Legal implications; Personal/professional reputation. 

Educational level: Intermediate. 

Educational aim: Practicing Ethical Reasoning: the application of critical analysis to specific events in order to evaluate and respond to problems in a fair and responsible way. 

 

Learning and teaching notes:  

This case study involves an engineer who has to weigh personal values against professional codes of conduct when acting in the wake of the climate crisis. This case study allows students to explore motivations and justifications for courses of action that could be considered morally right but legally wrong.  

This case study addresses two of the themes from the Accreditation of Higher Education Programmes fourth edition (AHEP4): The Engineer and Society (acknowledging that engineering activity can have a significant societal impact) and Engineering Practice (the practical application of engineering concepts, tools and professional skills). To map this case study to AHEP outcomes specific to a programme under these themes, access AHEP 4  here and navigate to pages 30-31 and 35-37. 

The dilemma in this case is presented in three parts. If desired, a teacher can use Part one in isolation, but Parts two and three develop and complicate the concepts presented in Part one to provide for additional learning. The case study allows teachers the option to stop at multiple points for questions and/or activities, as desired. 

Learners have the opportunity to: 

Teachers have the opportunity to: 

 

Learning and teaching resources: 

Professional organisations: 

Educational institutions: 

Education and campaign groups: 

 News articles:  

 

Summary: 

Kelechi is a civil engineer in a stable job, working on the infrastructure team of a County Council that focuses on regeneration and public realm improvements. Kelechi grew up in an environment where climate change and its real impacts on people was discussed frequently. She was raised with the belief that she should live as ethically as possible, and encourage others to consider their impact on the world. These beliefs were instrumental in leading Kelechi into a career as a civil engineer, in the hope that she could use her skills and training to create a better world. In one of her engineering modules at university, Kelechi met Amanda, who encouraged her to join a student group pushing for sustainability within education and the workplace. Kelechi has had some success with this within her own job, as her employer has been willing to participate in ongoing discussions on carbon and resilience, and is open to implementing creative solutions.  

But Kelechi is becoming frustrated at the lack of larger scale change in the wake of the climate emergency. Over the years she has signed petitions and written to her representatives, then watched in dismay as each campaign failed to deliver real world carbon reduction, and as the government continued to issue new licenses for fossil fuel projects. Even her own employers have failed to engage with climate advocates pushing for further changes in local policy, changes that Kelechi believes are both achievable and necessary. Kelechi wonders what else she can do to set the UK – if not the world – on a path to net zero. 

 

Dilemma – Part one: 

Scrolling through a news website, Kelechi is surprised to see a photo of her friend and ex-colleague Amanda, in a report about climate protesters being arrested. Kelechi messages Amanda to check that she’s ok, and they get into a conversation about the protests. Amanda is part of a climate protest group of STEM professionals that engages in non-violent civil disobedience. The group believes that by staging direct action protests they can raise awareness of the climate emergency and ultimately effect systemic change.  

Amanda tries to convince Kelechi to join the group and protest with them. Amanda references the second principle of the Statement of Ethical Principles published by the Engineering Council and the Royal Academy of Engineering: “Respect for life, law, the environment and public good.” Amanda believes that it is ok to ignore the tenet about respect for the law in an effort to safeguard the other three, and says that there have been plenty of unjust laws throughout history that have needed to be protested in order for them to be changed for the public good. She also references another part of the Statement: that engineers should ”maximise the public good and minimise both actual and potential adverse effects for their own and succeeding generations”. Amanda believes that by protesting she is actually fulfilling her duty to uphold these principles.  

Kelechi isn’t sure. She has never knowingly broken the law before, and is worried about being arrested. Kelechi consults her friend Max, who is a director of a professional engineering institution, of which Kelechi is a member. Max, whilst she has some sympathies for the aims of the group, immediately warns Kelechi away from the protests. “Forget about being arrested; you could lose your job and end your career.”  

 

Optional STOP for questions and activities: 

1. Discussion: What personal values will Kelechi have to weigh in order to decide whether or not to take part in a civil disobedience protest? 

2. Discussion: Consider the tenet of the Statement of Ethical Principles “Respect for life, law, the environment and public good.” To what extent (if at all) do the four tenets of this ethical principle come into conflict with one another in this situation? Can you think of other professional situations in which they might conflict? 

3. Discussion: Is breaking the law always unethical? Are there circumstances when breaking the law might be the ethical thing to do in the context of engineering practice? What might these circumstances be? 

4. Discussion: To what extent (if at all) does the content of the Statement of Ethical Principles make a case for or against being part of a protest where the law is broken?  

5. Discussion: Following on from the previous question – does it make a difference what is being protested, if a law is broken? For example, is protesting fossil fuels that lead to climate change different from protesting unsafe but legal building practices, such as cladding that causes a fire risk? Why? 

6. Activity: Research other professional codes of engineering: do these have clear guidelines for this situation? Assemble a bibliography of other professional codes or standards that might be relevant to this scenario. 

7. Discussion: What are the potential personal and professional risks or benefits for Kelechi if she takes part in a protest where the law is broken? 

8. Discussion: From a professional viewpoint, should Kelechi take part in the protest? What about from a personal viewpoint? 

 

Dilemma – Part two: 

After much deliberation, Kelechi decides to join the STEM protest group. Her first protest is part of a direct action to blockade a busy London bridge. To her own surprise, she finds herself volunteering to be one of two protesters who will climb the cables of the bridge. She is reassured by the risk assessment undertaken by the group before selecting her. She has climbing experience (although only from her local leisure centre), and safety equipment is provided.  

On the day of the protest, Kelechi scales the bridge. The police are called and the press arrive. Kelechi stays suspended from the bridge for 36 hours, during which time all traffic waiting to cross the bridge is halted or diverted. Eventually, Kelechi is convinced that she should climb down, and the police arrest all of the protesters.  

Later on, Kelechi is contacted by members of the press, asking for a statement about her reason for taking part in the protest. Kelechi has seen that press coverage of the protest is so far overwhelmingly negative, and poll results suggest that the majority of the public see the protesters’ actions as selfish, inconvenient, and potentially dangerous, although some have sympathy for their cause. “What if someone died because an ambulance couldn’t use the bridge?” asks someone via social media. “What about the five million deaths a year already caused by climate change?” asks another, citing a recent news article 

Kelechi would like to take the opportunity to make her voice heard – after all, that’s why she joined the protest group – but she isn’t sure whether she should mention her profession. Would it add credibility to her views? Or would she be lambasted because of it? 

 

Optional STOP for questions and activities: 

1. Discussion: What professional principles or codes is Kelechi breaking or upholding by scaling the bridge?  

2. Activity: Compare the professional and ethical codes for civil engineers in the UK and elsewhere. How might they differ in their guidance for an engineer in this situation?  

3. Activity: Conduct a risk assessment for a) the protesters who have chosen to be part of this scenario, and b) members of the public who are incidentally part of this scenario. 

4. Discussion: Who would be responsible if, as a direct or indirect result of the protesters blocking the bridge, a) a member of the public died, or b) a protester died? Who is responsible for the excess deaths caused directly or indirectly by climate change? 

5. Discussion: How can Kelechi best convey to the press and public the quantitative difference between the short-term disruption caused by protests and the long-term disruption caused by climate change? 

6. Discussion: Should Kelechi give a statement to the press? If so, should she discuss her profession? What would you do in her situation? 

7. Activity: Write a statement for Kelechi to release to the press. 

8. Discussion: Suggest alternative ways of protesting that would have as much impact in the news but potentially cause less disruption to the public. 

 

Dilemma – Part three: 

Kelechi decides to speak to the press. She talks about the STEM protest group, and she specifically cites the Statement of Ethical Principles as her reason for taking part in the protest: “As a professional civil engineer, I have committed to acting within our code of ethics, which requires that I have respect for life, the environment and public good. I will not just watch lives be destroyed if I can make a difference with my actions.”  

Whilst her statement gets lots of press coverage, Kelechi is called out by the media and the public because of her profession. The professional engineering institution of which Kelechi is a member receives several complaints about her actions, some from members of the public and some from other members of the institution. “She’s bringing the civil engineering profession into disrepute,” says one complaint. “She’s endangering the public,” says another. 

It’s clear that the institution must issue a press release on the situation, and it falls to Kelechi’s friend Max, as a director of the institution, to decide what kind of statement to put out, and to recommend whether Kelechi’s membership of the institution could – or should – be revoked. Max looks closely at the institution’s Code of Professional Conduct. One part of the Code says that “Members should do nothing that in any way could diminish the high standing of the profession. This includes any aspect of a member’s personal conduct which could have a negative impact upon the profession.” Another part of the Code says: “All members shall have full regard for the public interest, particularly in relation to matters of health and safety, and in relation to the well-being of future generations.” 

As well as the institution’s Code of Conduct, Max considers the historic impact of civil resistance in achieving change, and how those engaging in such protests – such as the suffragettes in the early 1900s – could be viewed negatively at the time, whilst later being lauded for their efforts. Max wonders at what point the tide of public opinion begins to turn, and what causes this change. She knows that she has to consider the potential impacts of the statement that she puts out in the press release; how it might affect not just her friend, but the institution’s members, other potential protesters, and also her own career.  

 

Optional STOP for questions and activities: 

1. Discussion: Historically, has civil resistance been instrumental or incidental in achieving systemic change? Research to find out if and when engineers have been involved in civil resistance in the past. 

2. Discussion: Could Kelechi’s actions, and the results of her actions, be interpreted as having “a negative impact on the profession”? 

3. Discussion: Looking at Kelechi’s actions, and the institution’s code of conduct, should Max recommend that Kelechi’s membership be revoked? 

4. Discussion: Which parts of the quoted code of conduct could Max emphasise or omit in her press release, and how might this affect the tone of her statement and how it could be interpreted? 

5. Activity: Debate which position Max should take in her press release: condemning the actions of the protesters as being against the institution’s code of conduct; condoning the actions as being within the code of conduct; remaining as neutral as possible in her statement. 

6. Discussion: What are the wider impacts of Max’s decision to either remain neutral, or to stand with or against Kelechi in her actions?  

7. Activity: Write a press release for the institution, taking one of the above positions. 

8. Discussion: Which other authorities or professional bodies might be impacted by Max’s decision? 

9. Discussion: What are the potential impacts of Max’s press release on the following stakeholders, and what decisions or actions might they take because of it? Kelechi; Kelechi’s employer; members of the STEM protest group; the institution; institution members; government policymakers; the media; the public; the police; fossil fuel businesses; Max’s employers; Max herself. 

 

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Any views, thoughts, and opinions expressed herein are solely that of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions, policies, or position of the Engineering Professors’ Council or the Toolkit sponsors and supporters.

Case Enhancement: Choosing to install a smart meter

Activity: Technical integration – Practical investigation of electrical energy.

Author: Mr Neil Rogers (Independent Scholar).

 

Overview:

This enhancement is for an activity found in the Dilemma Part two, Point 1 section of the case: “Technical integration – Undertake an electrical engineering technical activity related to smart meters and the data that they collect.”

This activity involves practical tasks requiring the learner to measure parameters to enable electrical energy to be calculated in two different scenarios and then relate this to domestic energy consumption. This activity will give technical context to this case study as well as partly address two AHEP themes:

This activity is in three parts. To fully grasp the concept of electrical energy and truly contextualise what could be a remote and abstract concept to the learner, it is expected that all three parts should be completed (even though slight modifications to the equipment list are acceptable).

Learners are required to have basic (level 2) science knowledge as well as familiarity with the Multimeters and Power Supplies of the institution.

Learners have the opportunity to:

Teachers have the opportunity to:

 

Suggested pre-reading:

To prepare for these practical activities, teachers may want to explain, or assign students to pre-read articles relating to electrical circuit theory with respect to:

 

Learning and teaching resources:

 

Activity: Practical investigation of electrical energy:

Task A: Comparing the energy consumed by incandescent bulbs with LEDs.

1. Power in a circuit.

By connecting the bulbs and LEDs in turn to the PSU with a meter in series:

a. Compare the wattage of the two devices.

b. On interpretation of their data sheets compare their luminous intensities.

c. Equate the quantity of each device to achieve a similar luminous intensity of approximately 600 Lumens (a typical household bulb equivalent).

d. now equate the wattages required to achieve this luminous intensity for the two devices.

 

2. Energy = Power x Time.

The units used by the energy providers are kWh:

a. Assuming the devices are on for 6 hours/day and 365 days/year, calculate the energy consumption in kWh for the two devices.

b. Now calculate the comparative annual cost assuming 1 kWh = 27p ! (update rate).

 

3.  Wider implications.

a. Are there any cost-benefit considerations not covered?

b. How might your findings affect consumer behaviour in ways that could either negatively or positively impact sustainability?

c. Are there any ethical factors to be considered when choosing LED lightbulbs? For instance, you might investigate minerals and materials used for manufacturing and processing and how they are extracted, or end-of-life disposal issues, or fairness of costs (both relating to production and use).

 

Task B: Using a plug-in power meter.

1. Connect the power meter to a dishwasher or washing machine and run a short 15/30 minute cycle and record the energy used in kWh.

2. Connect the power meter to a ½ filled kettle and turn on, noting the instantaneous power (in watts) and the time taken. Then calculate the energy used and compare to the power meter.

3. Connect the power meter to the fan heater and measure the instantaneous power. Now calculate the daily energy consumption in kWh for a fan heater on for 6 hours/day.

4. Appreciation of consumption of electrical energy over a 24 hour period (in kWh) is key. What are the dangers in reading instantaneous energy readings from a smart meter?

 

Task C: Calculation of typical domestic electrical energy consumption.

1. Using the list of items in Appendix A, calculate the typical electrical energy usage/day for a typical household.

2. Now compare the electrical energy costs per day and per year for these three suppliers, considering how suppliers source their energy (i.e. renewable vs fossil fuels vs nuclear etc).

 

Standing charge cost / day Cost per kWh Cost / day Cost / year
A) 48p 28p
B) 45p 31p
C) 51p 27p

 

3. Does it matter that data is collected every 30 minutes by your energy supplier? What implications might changing the collection times have?

4. With reference to Sam growing marijuana in the case, how do you think this will show up in his energy bill?

 

Appendix A: Household electrical devices power consumption:

Typical power consumption of electrical devices on standby (in Watts).

Wi-Fi router 10
TV & set top box 20
Radios & alarms 10
Dishwasher  5
Washing machine  5
Cooker & heat-ring controls 10
Gaming devices 10
Laptops x2 10

 

Typical consumption of electrical devices when active (in Watts) and assuming Gas central heating.

TV & set top box (assume 5 hours / day) 120
Dishwasher (assume 2 cycles / week) Use calculated
Washing machine (assume 2 cycles / week) Use calculated
Cooking (oven, microwave etc 1 hour / day) 1000
Gaming devices (1 hour / day) 100
Laptop ( 1 hour / day) 70
Kettle (3 times / day) Use calculated
Heating water pump (2 hours / day) 150
Electric shower (8 mins / day) 8000

 

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Any views, thoughts, and opinions expressed herein are solely that of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions, policies, or position of the Engineering Professors’ Council or the Toolkit sponsors and supporters.

Authors: Professor Mike Sutcliffe (TEDI-London); Professor Mike Bramhall (TEDI-London); Prof Sarah Hitt SFHEA (NMITE); Johnny Rich (Engineering Professors’ Council); Professor Dawn Bonfield MBE (Aston University); Professor Chike Oduoza (University of Wolverhampton); Steven Kerry (Rolls-Royce); Isobel Grimley (Engineering Professors’ Council).

Topic: Smart meters for responsible everyday energy use.

Engineering disciplines: Electrical engineering

Ethical issues: Integrity, Transparency, Social responsibility, Respect for the environment, Respect for the law

Professional situations: Communication, Privacy, Sustainability

Educational level: Beginner

Educational aim: To encourage ethical motivation. Ethical motivation occurs when a person is moved by a moral judgement, or when a moral judgement is a spur to a course of action. 

 

Learning and teaching notes:

This case is an example of ‘everyday ethics’. A professional engineer must give advice to a friend about whether or not they should install a smart meter. It addresses issues of ethical and environmental responsibility as well as public policy, financial burdens and data privacy. The case helps to uncover values that underlie assumptions that people hold about the environment and its connection to human life and services. It also highlights the way that those values inform everyday decision-making.

This case study addresses two of AHEP 4’s themes: The Engineer and Society (acknowledging that engineering activity can have a significant societal impact) and Engineering Practice (the practical application of engineering concepts, tools and professional skills). To map this case study to AHEP outcomes specific to a programme under these themes, access AHEP 4 here and navigate to pages 30-31 and 35-37.

The dilemma in this case is presented in three parts that build in complexity. If desired, a teacher can use Part one in isolation, but Part two and Part three develops and complicates the concepts presented in Part one in order to provide additional learning. The case allows teachers the opportunity to stop at various points to pose questions and/or set activities.

Learners have the opportunity to:

Teachers have the opportunity to:

 

Learning and teaching resources:

 

Summary – Part one:

Sam and Alex have been friends since childhood. As they have grown older, they have discovered that they hold very different political and social beliefs, but they never let these differences of opinion get in the way of a long and important friendship. In fact, they often test their own ideas against each other in bantering sessions, knowing that they are built on a foundation of respect.

Sam works as an accountant and Alex has become an environmental engineer. Perhaps naturally, Alex often asks Sam for financial advice, while Sam depends on Alex for expert information related to sustainability and the environment. One day, knowing that Alex is knowledgeable about the renewable energy industry and very conscious of the impact of energy use at home, Sam messages Alex to say he is getting pressure from his energy company to install a smart meter.

Sam has been told that smart metering is free, brings immediate benefits to customers by helping them to take control of their energy usage, and is a key enabler for the transition away from fossil fuels use and towards the delivery of net zero emissions by 2050. Smart meters give consumers near real-time information on energy use, and the associated cost, enabling them to better manage their energy use, save money and reduce emissions. A further benefit is that they could charge their electric car far more cheaply using a smart meter on an overnight tariff.

Yet Sam has also read that smart meters ‘go dumb’ if customers switch providers and, as a pre-payment customer, this option may not be available with a smart meter. In addition, Sam suspects that despite claims that the smart meter roll out is free, the charge is simply being passed on to customers through their energy bills instead. Alex tries to give Sam as much good information as possible, but the conversation ends with the decision unresolved.

 

Optional STOP for questions and activities: 

1. Discussion and activity: Personal values – We know that Sam and Alex have different ideas and opinions about many things. This probably stems from a difference in how they prioritise values. For instance, valuing transparency over efficiency, or sustainability over convenience. Using this values activity as a prompt, what personal values might be competing in this particular case?

2. Discussion and activity: Everyday ethics – Consider what values are involved in your everyday choices, decisions, and actions. Write a reflective essay on three events in the past week that, upon further analysis, have ethical components.

3. Discussion: Professional values – Does Alex, as an environmental engineer, have a responsibility to advocate installing smart meters? If so, does he have more responsibility than a non-engineer to advocate for this action? Why, or why not?

4. Discussion: Wider impact – Are there broader ethical issues at stake here?

5. Activity: Role-play a conversation between Sam and Alex that includes what advice should be given and what the response might be.

 

Dilemma – Part two:

After getting more technical information from Alex, Sam realises that, with a smart meter, data on the household’s energy usage would be collected every 30 minutes.  This is something they had not anticipated, and they ask a number of questions about the implications of this. Furthermore, while Sam has already compared tariffs and costs as the main way to choose the energy provider, Alex points out that different providers use different energy sources such as wind, gas, nuclear, coal, and solar. Sam is on a tight budget but Alex explains that the cheaper solution is not necessarily the most environmentally responsible choice. Sam is frustrated: now there is something else to consider besides whether or not to install the smart meter.

 

Optional STOP for questions and activities:  

1. Activity: Technical integration Undertake an electrical engineering technical activity related to smart meters and the data that they collect.

2. Activity: Research what happens with the data collected by a smart meter. Who can access this data and how is privacy protected? How does this data inform progress towards the energy transition from fossil fuels?

3. Activity: Research different energy companies and their approach to responsible energy sourcing and use. How do these companies communicate that approach to the public? Which company would you recommend to your friend and why?

4. Activity: Cost-benefit analysis – Sometimes the ethical choice is the more expensive choice. How do you balance short- and long-term benefits in this case? When, if ever, would it be ethically right to choose energy from non-renewable sources? How would this choice differ if the context being considered was different? For example, students could think about responsible energy use in industrialised economies versus the developing world and energy justice.

 

Dilemma – Part three:

Following this exchange with Sam, Alex becomes aware that one of the main obstacles in energy transition concerns communication with the public. Ideally, Alex wants to persuade family and other friends to make more responsible choices; however, it is clear that there are many more factors involved than can be seen in one glance. This includes what kinds of pressure is put on consumers by companies and the government. Alex begins to reflect on how policy drives what engineers think and do, and joins a new government network on Engineering in Policy.  

Alex and Sam meet up a little while later, and Sam announces that yes, a smart meter has been installed. At first Alex is relieved, but then Sam lets it slip that they are planning to grow marijuana in their London home. Sam asks whether this spike in energy use will be picked up as abnormal by a smart meter and whether this would lead to them being found out.

 

Optional STOP for questions and activities:  

1. Discussion: Personal values – What are the ethics involved in trying to persuade others to make similar choices to you?

2. Discussion and activity: Legal responsibility – What should Alex say or do about Sam’s disclosure? Role-play a conversation between Sam and Alex.

3. Discussion: Professional responsibility – What role should engineers play in setting and developing public policy on energy?

4. Activity: Energy footprint – Research which industries use the most energy and, on a smaller scale, which home appliances use the most energy.

 

Enhancements:

An enhancement for this case study can be found here.

 

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Any views, thoughts, and opinions expressed herein are solely that of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions, policies, or position of the Engineering Professors’ Council or the Toolkit sponsors and supporters.

Authors: Professor Dawn Bonfield MBE (Aston University); Johnny Rich (Engineering Professors’ Council); Professor Chike Oduoza (University of Wolverhampton).

Keywords: Ethical principles; Code of conduct; Engineering professionals; Ethical decision-making; Ethical behaviour.

Who is this article for?: This article should be read by educators at all levels in higher education who wish to integrate ethics into the engineering and design curriculum or module design. It will also help to prepare students with the integrated skill sets that employers are looking for.

 

Premise:

The Statement of Ethical Principles published by the Engineering Council and the Royal Academy of Engineering in 2005 (revised in 2017) contains the recommendations to which all UK engineers should comply. It sets out four fundamental principles that all engineering professionals should aspire to follow in their working habits and relationships.

At the launch of the revised document, the Chair of the Engineering Council said “The profession needs to ensure that the principles are embedded at all stages of professional development for engineers and those technicians, tradespeople, students, apprentices and trainees engaged in engineering.”

These principles are based on the premise that engineering professionals work to enhance the wellbeing of society, and in so doing they are required to maintain and promote high ethical standards, as well as to challenge unethical behaviour. The principles are the foundation for making decisions when faced with an ethical dilemma in engineering.

 

The four principles:

The code defines four fundamental principles of ethical behaviour: Honesty and integrity; Respect for life, law, the environment and public good; Accuracy and rigour; and Leadership and communication.

The requirement for engineers to embody honesty and integrity is based on the expectation that engineers can be trusted. It seeks to position the engineering community as one that possesses the respect and confidence of the public. People should feel confident that the word of an engineer is a reliable one, and that decisions taken by engineers are fair and without compromise or conflict.

Respect for life, law, the environment and public good demands that engineers are law-abiding and have the public’s best interests at heart. This allows people to feel safe when they drive over bridges, fly in aircrafts, and use electrical equipment. It reassures them that engineering designs have been tested, are legally compliant, and that the engineer puts, above all else, the wellbeing of the public, future generations, other members of the profession, and the environment in which we live. This principle also covers the protection of data and privacy of the public.

Accuracy and rigour ensures that engineers are trained, competent and knowledgeable, and that they do not pass themselves off as experts in areas where they are not competent. It requires that engineers keep their knowledge up-to-date, and share their knowledge and understanding with others in their profession. It calls for engineers to take a broad approach to problem-solving, considering a variety of external factors which may influence the risks of any project.

And finally, the principle of leadership and communication ensures that engineers lead by example, that diversity and inclusion are valued, and that people are treated fairly and with respect. It is concerned with the impact of engineering on society in the broadest sense – with how the public sees engineering and how engineering addresses public, social and environmental justice concerns. It requires engineers to be considerate and truthful when acting in a professional capacity, and to raise concerns where necessary.

These four principles underpin professional codes of conduct for engineers, and they provide guidance on how ethical decisions should be made, giving a set of values against which engineers can behave.

 

Using the principles to unpick right from wrong and make the best decision:

While these principles can form a useful basis for ethical decision-making within engineering, it is often the case that conflicts arise that prevent the decision pathway from being straightforward, when there is no obvious right or wrong answer. There may be other principles that need to be considered, relating to the organisation or the institution that the engineer is working for. Furthermore, there may be other considerations associated with a person’s religion, culture or belief system. We shouldn’t forget that other constraints such as cost and time will also impact on the possible options available.

So, decision-making in engineering is rarely straightforward. It is not like a mathematical equation with right and wrong answers, but rather with degrees of rightness, balances of pros and cons and, often, with some costs incurred for the sake of a greater good. Various tools and frameworks exist to help the decision-maker with ethical problems. Probably the simplest logical method considers each of the possible solutions against the ethical principles that are to be complied with. These can then be considered in relation to the stakeholders affected, and a list of pros and cons can be developed. They can even be scored and weighted.

What if a decision is required quickly? How do we ensure that we are likely to make the best one? These questions are partly due to the values that we subscribe to as engineers, and as individuals. They become embedded in our subconsciousness through our training and practice. When decisions need to be made in a hurry, we rely on heuristics, or simple rules or instincts that feel consistent with the ethical knowledge and expertise that we have built up during our career. These heuristics, however, are subject to cognitive biases – psychological patterns of thought that divert us from purely rational approaches. Being aware of these biases can help to minimise or compensate for them.

 

Conclusion:

Engineers should utilise the Statement of Ethical Principles and knowledge of the specific context they are working in, to make the best decisions on the situation or dilemmas at hand. Ultimately, decisions that we make as a professional engineer are our individual responsibility, and whatever decision results, we should be prepared to justify and stand by them, knowing that we have taken these in good faith and for the right reasons. Ethical decision-making can be practised throughout an engineer’s education by using a variety of case studies to explore a range of scenarios an engineer could face. The Royal Academy of Engineering and Engineering Professors’ Council’s Engineering ethics case studies can be used for this.

 

Additional resources:

 

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Any views, thoughts, and opinions expressed herein are solely that of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions, policies, or position of the Engineering Professors’ Council or the Toolkit sponsors and supporters.

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