New course challenges engineers' ethical decision-making skills

Penn State Assistant Professor Caitlin Grady created a course that focuses on engineering students' interpersonal and decision-making skills after she realized how valuable those strengths were while working in Washington D.C. Credit: Jennifer Matthews / Penn StateCreative Commons

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — A new engineering class being offered this spring is introducing civil and environmental engineers to decision making and public policy. The class, taught by civil engineering assistant professor Caitlin Grady, is titled CE597: Ethics, Engineering and Environmental Management. It is currently only offered to students in graduate school.

“I was inspired to create the course based on my experiences working in Washington, D.C., and seeing the ways engineers can contribute to non-traditional careers,” said Grady.

Grady previously worked for the U.S. Department of State, the U.S. Department of Energy and Congresswoman Betty McCollum, covering a variety of issues including water, energy, financial services and civil rights.  

After coming to Penn State, Grady recognized a gap in the course offerings that needed to be filled. While many engineering classes prepared students for the technical aspects of their careers, few challenged students to improve their interpersonal and decision-making skills. Adding CE597 to the course catalog gave students the opportunity to do just that.

“The course goes over how to think critically about very difficult situations that are going to arise in the real world,” said Grady. “It’s trying to develop the skills for engineers to confront non-technical but very important decisions that they are going to be a part of, either through their research in grad school or practice as an engineer.”

Grady also hopes that students learn to consider the impact of engineering solutions in a global, economic, environmental and societal context.

“It’s heavily focused on society at large and that includes policy makers, government officials, community stakeholders, and how and why engineers participate in different types of societal interactions,” said Grady.

Those enrolled in the course will learn about decision-making processes through examining several real-life case studies over the course of the semester. The cases will cover topics engineers may face such as: pollution, water scarcity, resource conflicts, water rights, food production, climate change and environmental disasters. 

Upon completion of the course, students will have the ability to critically evaluate ethical and social considerations in science and engineering practice.

There are no prerequisites required for the class. There are currently eight master’s and doctoral students enrolled, and Grady hopes to continue to offer it once a year. 

Last Updated February 27, 2018