I’ve had the privilege of knowing and interviewing a number of people who [had the courage to speak out], and I think what makes their courage even more impressive is that they somehow have a capacity to see what the world (or life or a particular circumstance) looks like to the powerless. And that’s really what drives them.

Margaret Heffernan
Author of Willful Blindness: Why We Ignore the Obvious at Our Peril
TED Radio Hour, 12 December 2014

[grand rounds presentation] the washington dc lead crisis (2001-2004): prelude to flint 2015

“The Washington DC Lead Crisis (2001-2004): Prelude to Flint 2015” is the pediatric grand rounds presentation that Principal Investigator (PI) Marc Edwards was invited to give at Hurley Medical Center in Flint, MI in December 2015.

In this talk, Marc highlights key events in the history of the DC lead-in-water contamination and the large-scale public health harm that ensued. It illustrates that the main cause of both the crisis and its destructive aftermath was systematic and escalating misconduct by engineers and scientists in government agencies whose very mission it was to protect the public’s health. The central question Marc raises is:

What messages do engineers’ and scientists’ workplaces communicate that foster institutional cultures of willful blindness to wrongdoing and of cowardice in preventing or stopping harm? And what price are engineers and scientists willing to pay to rise above these cultures and defend the public’s welfare when such welfare is in jeopardy?

Here’s the link to Marc’s talk.

Screenshot 2015-12-30 17.01.29

[podcast] lead in drinking water: is flint a washington dc 2.0 and other tales

This is a conversation with co-Principal Investigator (co-PI) Yanna Lambrinidou.

Against the backdrop of the Washington, DC 2001-2004 and Flint, MI 2015-2016 lead-in-water crises, the Podcast explores questions about the nature and prevalence of lead in US drinking water, the federal Lead and Copper Rule (LCR), and troubling complexities in the Rule’s revisions-making process. It also discusses the often-overlooked work of affected publics, which in the case of lead in water have played a catalytic role in exposing (and sometimes redressing) negligence or wrongdoing by engineers, scientists, policy-makers, and lawmakers alike.

Featured are personal reflections on the experience of public health activism in the face of professional misconduct, as well as questions about increasingly popular initiatives for the inclusion of diverse publics into the production of engineering/scientific knowledge (e.g., “public participation,” “citizen science,” “service learning”). The Podcast concludes with comments about the inspiration behind Yanna’s and Marc’s graduate class “Engineering Ethics and the Public.” 

This conversation was produced by Virginia Tech graduate student and Flint Water Study communications director Siddhartha Roy.

[class lecture] ethics and the new engineering

“Ethics and the New Engineering” is a talk to the Fall 2014 class of “Engineering Ethics and the Public” by Taft Broome, Jr., ScD, Professor of Civil Engineering at Howard University and Project Advisor to “Bridging the Gap Between Engineers and Society: Learning to Listen.”

In this presentation, Dr. Broome combines modern and ancient history, philosophy, science, engineering, and engineering ethics to pose questions about how engineers are conditioned to view the world and their role in it, whether morally-sound engineering practice necessitates a paradigm shift in the engineering worldview, and what it would take to bring about such a shift.

[tedx talk] heroic by nature, cowardly by convenience

This is the 2013 TEDx Virginia Tech talk by Principal Investigator (PI) Marc Edwards.

Drawing on the history of the DC Lead Crisis, this talk looks at the paradoxical treatment to which our society often subjects workplace whistleblowers, which leaves such individuals routinely ostracized rather than celebrated. Marc suggests that one of the reasons for this paradox is the human tendency to inflate our virtues and downplay our weaknesses, which can foster in us moral blindness and inertia.

In the world of engineering and science, the talk suggests that this tendency is reinforced through training that conditions practitioners to be “cowards of convenience.” It concludes with a call to engineers and scientists for learning to see, when they would have been willfully blind, and to act, when they would have allowed fear to paralyze them. 

[workshop video] messages to engineers and scientists

This short video compilation features messages to engineers/scientists from six environmental health advocates that include a scientist whistleblower and members of affected publics. It highlights reflections on who “the public” is, what engineers/scientists should keep in mind when interacting with “the public,” and how to think about:

  • The public’s welfare
  • Public participation in engineering/science
  • One’s professional responsibility when one witnesses workplace wrongdoing that could result in public harm.

This video was part of the National Science Foundation (NSF) sponsored graduate ethics education workshop “Bridging the Gap Between Engineers and Society: Learning to Listen” that the project’s Principal Investigator (PI) and co-Principal Investigator (co-PI) gave at the 2013 Association of Environmental Engineering & Science Professors (AEESP) 50th Anniversary Conference in Golden, CO.

“learning to listen” exercise

This exercise involves a semester-long, hands-on training on the critically important first steps of gathering the often-confusing and sometimes-concealed facts of real-world engineering/science controversies. Offering in-depth ethnographic listening as a tool for empirically-based explorations of the moral dimensions of a case, the training consists of three phases. The first two prepare students for the third, which comprises the term project. They are as follows:

  • Phase 1: Anatomy of in-depth listening. Students write about four of their own experiences with in-depth listening: two that they had as speakers (one when they felt listened to and one when they did not) and two as listeners (one when they recall listening closely to a speaker and one when they did not). They describe behaviors, observations, and feelings they remember associated with each memory, concluding with a reflection on what “good” and “bad” listening look and feel like, as well as what effects they can have on one’s capacity to express oneself or relate to others. Responses are compiled for everyone’s review. They provide extensive insight into the power that listening and non-listening can have to enhance or undermine respectively a speaker’s comfort, focus, clarity of thought, ability to communicate effectively, capacity to stay in the conversation, and self-esteem.
  • Phase 2: Practice of in-depth listening. Students conduct one face-to-face interview with someone they know well. They focus on understanding views that their interviewee holds but that they, themselves, find objectionable. The goal is to gain clarity on those views and the reasons behind them, while refraining from interpretation and judgment. Students are advised to ask all questions necessary to see the subject in question from their interviewee’s perspective. They are reminded that their task is understanding, not necessarily agreeing. Written reports provide reflection on what students learned and how they performed as interviewers. The latter assessment includes interviewee feedback as well.
  • Phase 3: In-depth listening in engineering and science. Students conduct a sustained investigation into an unfolding engineering controversy, which culminates in one in-depth ethnographic interview of an affected stakeholder whose voice is underrepresented or misrepresented in official depictions of the case (e.g., parent, grassroots community organization representative, whistleblower, scientist advocate). Final reports consist of a detailed description of the case; a discussion of key moral transgressions as identified by interviewees; interviewee values, goals, and visions of a just resolution; “lessons learned” that may have changed students’ original understanding of the case; reflections on the conduct of engineers/scientists in the case; and thoughts on actions students, themselves, would want to have taken if they were themselves involved. Although usually each student selects a topic of his/her choice, in 2012 all students interviewed stakeholders in a case we preselected: the Clean Air Coalition of Western New York’s (CACWNY) fight against Tonawanda Coke Corporation’s benzene air emissions. The aim of this final phase is to enable students to see a case from the perspective of a marginalized stakeholder and to appreciate that diverse knowledges, values, and goals can add crucially important and technically relevant complexities to official depictions of engineering/science controversies.

This is the assignment:

“story of self”

This exercise is an adaptation of the work on public narrative and the Story of Self of Harvard University sociologist and senior lecturer in public policy Marshall Ganz, PhD.

The version of the “Story of Self” we developed for “Engineering Ethics and the Public” is based on the premise that best practices in engineering and science require practitioners to remain deserving of the public’s trust by staying attuned to their primary and most fundamental obligation: the protection of the health, safety, and welfare of the public. As an increasing number of real-world controversies has shown, upholding high ethical standards for a client that is too often “unseen” and “unheard” can become a challenge even for the most well-meaning engineers and scientists when they lose touch with the ideals that brought them to their fields in the first place. Additionally, a majority of engineers and scientists go through years of educational training without ever articulating these ideals (let alone reflecting on them or refining them).

We use the “Story of Self” as a vehicle through which students can begin to develop self-awareness about who they are and what types of professionals they aspire to become. Addressing community organizers and movement leaders, Ganz explains that such self-awareness can comprise a powerful resource for gaining both moral clarity and the courage to act when one’s surroundings foster confusion and inaction: 

Stories are how we learn to make choices. Stories are how we learn to access the moral and intellectual resources we need to engage with the uncertain, the unknown, and the unpredicted. Because stories speak the language of emotion, the language of the heart, they teach us not only how we “ought to” act, but can in fact inspire us with the “courage to” act. And because the sources of emotion on which they draw are in our values, our stories can help us translate our values into action.

Our students are asked to write their “Story of Self” at the beginning and end of the course. The purpose of the two iterations is twofold: they allow for personal reflection on changes one may have undergone during the course of a semester, as well as for appreciation of the value of revisiting and revising one’s narrative, as one’s personal and professional circumstances evolve.

We have observed that the second iteration of students’ stories often includes:

  • characterizations of one’s earlier perceptions of engineering/science as “idealized” and articulations of moral challenges or weaknesses in one’s profession;
  • feelings of humility, uncertainty, vulnerability, or greater clarity about who one is or how one will conduct oneself in the face of work-related challenges in the future;
  • assessments of conventional educational cultures/curricula, and their effect on one’s personal identity as well as on one’s thinking, perceiving the world, and assessing the value of diverse knowledges and perspectives;
  • articulation of personal/professional aspirations coupled with clear visions about who one does and does not want to become as a person/professional;
  • affirmation of one’s commitment to one’s field and articulation of aspects of one’s field that make one’s aspirations realizable.

The assignment is below:


Examples of students’ “Story of Self” follow:

weekly blogging

The course’s weekly blogging assignment is based on the work of Gardner Campbell, PhD, Vice Provost for Learning Innovation and Student Success, Dean of University College, and Associate Professor of English at Virginia Commonwealth University. Inspired by Dr. Campbell’s ‘Narrate, Curate, Share’: How Blogging Can Catalyze Learning, this assignment requires students to develop a personal class blog on which they post weekly reflections in relation to their journey through the course. Students are also expected to read and post comments on each others’ posts.

Here is the assignment:


Blogging offers students a unique opportunity to deepen their thinking about and make personal and innovative connections to readings, class lectures, class discussions, guest appearances, and assigned projects. Apart from expanding the conversation outside the walls of the classroom, the process encourages self-exploration of personal and professional values, assumptions, biases, insights, and aspirations as well as self-expression of cognitive and emotional reactions in ways that render students more “visible” to themselves, their classmates, and to us, their instructors. A notable benefit to the exercise is that it allows students to notice their evolving moral selves and the impact that “who” they are at any given time can have on their perception and response to any given situation. We have found this to be a critically important lesson because it challenges a common assumption: that if one is a “moral” individual, one will also be a “moral” professional.

Blogging is one among several tools we use to help students see and experience the complex interaction between:

  • Personal forces, and
  • Interpersonal, professional, institutional, and societal pressures

that can create circumstances conducive to both morally sound and morally deficient professional conduct. In light of neuroscience and social science research highlighting that a) moral decision-making in everyday life is not reducible to abstract moral calculations, and b) emotion plays a far greater and necessary role in robust moral decision-making than previously thought, we view student awareness of their own role and agency in moral decision-making essential to ethics education and future moral action.

Here are examples of student blog posts:


And one from our before-blogging days:


As well as one from Yanna Lambrinidou: