learning to listen (l2l)

Learning to Listen (L2L) teaches students the method of ethnographic listening to diverse publics who are affected by engineering practices and products but whose voices are often ignored. It cautions that failure to consider such voices can leave engineers vulnerable to incomplete understanding of complex issues, self-interest, and institutional pressures that can contribute to suboptimal professional decisions, unethical conduct, and even public harm.

Based on the premise that morality is not a fixed theoretical body of knowledge that exists apart from day-to-day living and professional practice, L2L challenges the notion that comprehension of moral codes, theories, and principles alone equips engineers to determine what constitutes “ethical” professional conduct in different contexts and at different times. The training fosters ethical decision-making not as abstract determinations of “right” and “wrong,” but as direct engagement with local experiences, knowledges, and values, and careful assessment of what in each circumstance constitutes appropriate use of professional power and technical expertise.

Key learning objectives of this module are to:

  • Recognize that the boundary between a) politically dominant paradigms of engineering/science thought and practice and b) marginalized knowledge claims, is often nebulous and fluid.
  • Recognize that members of the public have the capacity to understand and contribute to engineering/science by expanding, challenging, and even correcting officially-sanctioned beliefs, theories, and knowledge.
  • Begin to practice effective listening to diverse communities and perspectives, especially those traditionally silenced, when making decisions that can affect the health, safety, and welfare of the public.
  • Think critically about whether official reports about engineering/science include voices of marginalized stakeholders, and become familiar with a wide range of informational sources beyond official documents and records (e.g., personal narratives, unofficial reports, citizen-led science) to investigate all sides of an engineering/science controversy.

responsible conduct of research (rcr)

Engineering/science research is expected to comply with professional, institutional, governmental, and societal standards. Occurrence of research misconduct, defined by the federal government as “fabrication,” “falsification,” and/or “plagiarism,” can produce results that can mislead experts and non-experts alike, with great cost to individuals within the engineering/scientific community and society at large.

This module explores not only fabrication, falsification, and plagiarism, but also a wider array of questionable research practices that can a) skew data and bias authoritative interpretations, b) generate erroneous understandings as well as misinformed decisions and behaviors, c) result in flawed public policy that is presented as science-based, and ultimately d) cause public harm. A central theme of this module is that existing mechanisms for self-correction in engineering/science are often weaker than assumed and frequently subverted by individual and institutional resistance to challenges against prevailing paradigms of thought and practice.

Key learning objectives of this module are to:

  • Become familiar with the history and prevalence of research ethics violations in engineering/science.
  • Be able to discuss the broad range of motives, aside from profit, that can lead to violations of research ethics in engineering/science.
  • Recognize the multiplicity and diversity of ramifications that can result from research ethics violations in engineering/science.
  • Describe weaknesses in existing safeguards for detecting and addressing violations of research ethics in engineering/science.
  • Gain appreciation for one’s own vulnerability to violating research ethics in engineering/science, as well as one’s responsibility for and agency in recognizing, exposing, and redressing irresponsible conduct in engineering/science research.

responsible conduct of practice (rcp)

The term engineering/science “best practices” usually refers to compliance with technical standards, professional codes of ethics, and laws. But engineering/science practice also involves the crossing over of expert knowledge from the “lab” into the public sphere. There, practitioners are asked for their authoritative input into real-world problems, questions, controversies, and disputes. Social arenas in which engineers/scientists find themselves include the world of public education and communication, private and public consulting, public policy making, and the courtroom. Although it is rarely examined in graduate training curricula, the transfer of technical expertise in real-world settings is rarely as simple as a value-free knowledge-sharing exercise. Rather, it often requires value judgments that are intrinsic to advice-giving on any subject, and especially on those that are contested or embody uncertainties. It can also involve authoritative knowledge claims that have limited, if any, connection to one’s technical expertise.

This module foregrounds the potentially complex implications of engineering/science practice when practitioners are a) unreflective about how their own personal and professional trajectories, values, and commitments color their practice, b) not fully aware of conflicts of interests underlying their thinking, and c) uninformed about the histories, experiences, resources, values, and interests as well as differential financial and political power of the diverse groups of stakeholders their input may affect. By emphasizing the necessity to gain awareness about the political aspects of their practice, including how such practice may promote or undermine local definitions of social justice, this module asks students to:

  • Consider engineers’/scientists’ social power;
  • Explore the ethical dimensions of transferring engineering/scientific knowledge to non-technical audiences, and the unique responsibilities that such a task entails.

Key learning objectives of this module are to:

  • Be able to discuss the complex interconnections between a) engineering/science practice and b) personal, professional, and institutional commitments that can influence one’s involvement in the public sphere.
  • Be able to describe expressions of engineers’/scientists’ social power as well as how misuses of this power may result in exploitation, injustice, and/or harm.
  • Recognize the broad range of motives, aside from profit, that can lead to questionable, improper, or illegal engineering/science practice.
  • Gain appreciation for one’s own vulnerability to misusing one’s social power, as well as one’s responsibility for and agency in recognizing, exposing, and redressing irresponsible conduct in engineering/science practice.

witnessing wrongdoing and the obligation to prevent harm (ww)

The first canon of engineering codes of ethics is what is referred to as the “public paramountcy” clause: engineers’ responsibility to “hold paramount the safety, health, and welfare of the public.” Yet engineers and scientists are rarely taught how to make informed judgments about what constitutes “health,” “safety,” and “welfare” in different contexts and for different publics, and how to best restore these ideals when they are compromised or violated. Moreover, they often assume that doing the “right thing” to prevent or address wrongdoing necessitates severe forms of whistleblowing that inevitably result in personal and/or professional harm and that should, therefore, be avoided.

This module looks at wrongdoing in engineering/science from the perspective of the witness. It demonstrates that bystander inaction can facilitate, prolong, and/or exacerbate harm not only to the public but also to the engineering/scientific community itself. It considers forces that might prevent moral action and explores a range of responses that engineers/scientists can utilize prior to, or instead of, whistleblowing. Finally, it examines obstacles, risks, and sacrifices associated with attempts to stop wrongdoing as well as rewards that can accompany moral leadership and moral courage.

Key learning objectives of this module are to:

  • Recognize the role of bystanders in facilitating, prolonging, and/or exacerbating harm from workplace wrongdoing.
  • Identify forces in the engineering/scientific community that tend to discourage moral action for preventing or addressing workplace wrongdoing, as well as gain appreciation for one’s own vulnerability to these forces.
  • Identify a broad range of interventions, in addition to whistleblowing, that can be taken to prevent or address workplace wrongdoing.
  • Develop personal principles and habits that can bolster one’s capacity to take action when witnessing workplace wrongdoing.