The teaching of ethics in engineering is a topic of much concern in engineering education. The purpose of this paper is to present an innovation in teaching ethics combined with accuracy of computation and clarity of documentation in a design setting.
In similar courses variously titled Machine Component Design, Design II, and Mechanical Systems Design, I have put the students through design projects that involve a "design on paper" (a semi-archaic term in the computerized classroom). The objective is to produce a design report for an original and unique solution to a design problem. Prototype production is optional. The course, a precursor to a senior design project, must be a preparation for, rather than a duplication of, the senior design effort. The workload must be kept low enough to fit into a course along with many other design topics. The scheme described here offers efficient use of the student's and instructor's time while combining strong lessons in producing accurate, thorough, clearly presented work, with an emphasis on the ethical aspects of engineering work
II. THE PREMIER CALCULATION
The key to this method is an item in the student's design report called the "premier calculation." Premier calculations consist of one calculation per student on the team. The bulk of the calculations can be done to "homework" levels of accuracy and care, but the premier calculations are prepared and checked to the highest standards that the students can achieve.
The premier calculations are required to be fully checked by another student in the team so that each student has prepared one premier calculation and checked one other. Each page is numbered, carries a calculation number, and is signed by both the preparer and the checker. When these calculations are graded, the preparer and checker lose the same amount of credit for "editorial" errors, but if the preparer loses credit for an "error of substance," the checker loses twice as much credit.
The rationale for this method of grading is explained to the students in the following manner:
"Checking a calculation done by another engineer can be one of the most important responsibilities of your engineering career. After you give your approval of the calculation, very few people will question its accuracy because it was done by an engineer and `It's been checked!' An error will be that much harder to find and lives could depend on it. Your checking of the calculation could well be the last major safety hurdle the work will have to pass, so you can see that this is not a trivial matter."
This statement is from the preamble to a document describing how to do engineering checking which is given to all the students. As part of a team-based design project, the students learn to appreciate how the interconnectedness of their work affects the outcome of an entire project. Doing only one calculation to this level of accuracy does not inordinately burden the students. Because they are doing other calculations to only "homework" levels of accuracy, they see in stark contrast the difference between doing calculations well enough to develop and demonstrate their expertise in an academic setting, versus doing a calculation that can stand close scrutiny and be sufficiently reliable if life or legal issues should be involved.
The emphasis on checking is crucial. As the preamble cited above states, once a document has "been checked" by an engineer, it gains a large measure of credibility and trust; and that psychological gain in credibility must be matched by technical sufficiency as well.
Examples of key issues in the preparation of premier calculations are given below. These issues are often under-appreciated by students and sometimes overlooked by practicing engineers. These issues are excerpted from the "How to Check"* document.
III. HOW TO CHECK
The basic steps of checking presented to the students are as follows: