Opinion | Grainger should require ethics courses


Photo courtesy of Kee Yip/Flickr

Columnist Anushka Agashe argues that students in Engineering should be required to take an ethics course with 15 out of 16 majors within Grainger requiring curriculum on ethics.

By Anushka Agashe, Columnist

Throughout history, engineering has resulted in innovations that have improved lives around the world. However, without a strong moral compass to guide them, engineers are also capable of causing great harm.

Given the immense power of the field of engineering to cause change, all students studying engineering at the University of Illinois should be required to take an ethics course.

Engineering students, like all students across campus, are already required to fulfill general education requirements in areas such as social & behavioral sciences, humanities & the arts and cultural studies. While it is true that ethics courses can be taken to fulfill these requirements, most students choose other classes instead. 

These gen-ed requirements aim to make students more well-rounded and empathetic when they enter the workforce. The lack of an ethics course requirement for students means that an essential part of this goal is left unfulfilled, which does a disservice to them, their future careers and society at large.

Building a required ethics course into the Grainger curriculum would require small changes to each major’s courses. However, doing so would demonstrate a commitment by the university to train engineers that work towards bettering society.

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Currently, computer science students within Grainger are required to take an ethics course, and an elective Ethics and Engineering class is offered by the Electrical & Computer Engineering department. However, 15 out of 16 Grainger majors have no such requirement.

Engineers are constantly innovating, and students at the University will be no exception when they graduate. However, the development of new technologies comes with its own moral questions and limitations.

For example, there are several different biomedical technologies that have recently caught public attention for their ethical concerns. For example, stem cell research could unlock the future of disease treatment. However, acquiring stem cells from human embryos has caused debate on when a fertilized egg becomes a person, and whether this new frontier of treatment can be ethically explored.

Another example is the ethics of genetic editing. Being able to avoid genetic diseases starting at the DNA would save lives. However, the high cost of genetic improvements could widen the divide between rich and poor.

Despite these extremely topical issues in health technology, there is no requirement for bioengineering students at the University to learn about the ethical ramifications of topics they will likely encounter after graduation.

Even outside of the development of new technologies, engineers are held to an ethical standard of honesty, integrity and safety. Students would benefit from learning about these responsibilities early on as a part of their curriculum.

The ethical dilemmas that engineers may encounter vary across disciplines, and Grainger-educated engineers need to be prepared to face them. These dilemmas could range from the choice between cost and safety when designing a building, to running animal and human trials for new drugs, to finding the balance between data collection and privacy. In each of these situations and more, engineers must be prepared on to always make the morally correct decision.

The engineering curriculum at the University is one of the best in the world, providing students with the scientific and technical skills they need to be successful beyond their undergraduate years. The addition of an ethics requirement would ensure that they use these skills for good.


Anushka is a sophomore in Engineering

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