Ed Bilodeau

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This weblog had moved: http://www.coolweblog.com/bilodeau/

# Notice (Oct 19/05): So ends my stay here on Blogger. This morning Google implemented an anti-spam 'feature' that forces me to answer a challenge phrase when I want to post to my own blog. No notice of the change, nothing. Worse is that it doesn't even work! I type the phrase, submit, "An error occured", post deleted. Damn you, Google. Chances are I will revive my blog somewhere else, sometime soon. I'll post the new coordinates here as soon as they become available. (BTW, I'm unable to post anything to my RSS stream, so I'd appreciate it if readers could spread the word and ask people to take a look at this notice)

Update (Oct 19/05, ~noon): After a frustrating few hours (and not just trying out alternatives to Blogger), I've decided that this is a good time to take a break from all this. A day? A week? Who knows. But I need to step away from it before I pass a heavy magnet over the whole mess.

Update 2: According to this post, the reason I'm seeing the CAPTCHA (challenge phrase) is that Blogger has classified my blog as spam. Thanks. User for five years and now I'm spam. I searched the Blogger site, but there is no mention of how to get the spam flag turned off. There is also no way of contacting anyone at Blogger. Wow. Spam they say I am, so spam I must be. Maybe it is time to take a break.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Is It Time to Shut Down Engineering Colleges? : The author of this recent article uses the disaster in New Orleans to leverage his position of curriculum change in engineering. Again, as is usually the case, learning opportunities are thought of strictly in terms of the formal curriculum: we need to cut the "bad" classes and put in the good ones that teach engineers how to behave ethically:
"How do we make room in the crowded undergraduate engineering curriculum for students to explore disciplines outside math and science --– literature and economics, history and music, philosophy and languages -- that are vital if we are to create a competitive new generation of engineering leaders? By scaling back the number of increasingly narrow, and quickly outmoded technical courses students are now required to take -- leaving only those that teach them to think like engineers and to gain knowledge to solve problems. Students need to have room to in their schedules for wide ranging elective study."
I don't think it is accurate to blame what happened in New Orleans on the engineers. Not only is it way too early to have the proper information to make such an assessment, but more importantly this line of reasoning assumes that the engineers are in a position of authority to make the final decision on how funds are allocated, what the priorities are, etc. They are not. Their clients, the politicians are. We have heard how the engineers for years have been saying that something needed to be done, but the politicians decided against it.

Having said that, adding courses on "ethics", etc, etc doesn't work, at least not in the way people seem to think it does. To "learn" ethics is to integrate it into your being, your identity as a professional and as a person. This kind of learning can only happen in a social context, grounded in practice. It will not happen in the classroom.

Currently, this kind of learning opportunity only presents itself in the workplace. Here, students learn from practitioners, their peers, how to behave: what is acceptable or unacceptable behaviour, what the values of the profession are, etc. The learning takes place in the real, high-pressure reality of the workplace, a context that is often so far divorced from the clean, idealized world of the classroom that students are unable to link what they learned in ethics class, for example, to the decisions they are faced with.

Universities have a responsibility, I believe, to look for ways to provide students with learning opportunities outside the classroom, social contexts that begin to introduce them to the practice of their profession, and to give them guidance on how to deal with the complexities of actual practice before they are immersed in it.

Comments:

I suspect, though this may be wrong, that all engineering degrees have some non trivial coverage of ethics. At least in Canada. It also extends to more professional degrees. Many CS degrees (if you consider a CS degree, a professional degree) cover ethics related issue.

Even if engineers are unethical, which I don't think is our problem, the solution, in Canada, doesn't lie primarily with the universities, but with the corporations which are responsible for enforcing ethical practices on their members.

Can we or should we blame politicians? It depends. If you feel strongly the politician is taking the wrong decision, you should put your objection in writting, make sure your superior signs off on your objections... or any other similar means. If you just silently think "ok then, if I don't have the money, too bad"... you are at fault. As a pro, you have to voice your objections and do everything you can to be heard where you need to be heard.

So far, I haven't seen reports from engineers objecting to what was done in New Orleans. All I saw were budget not being allocated. As an engineer, if the lack of budget is putting people at risk, you should report it and document it. Sure, if the politician ignores you, it won't fix the problem, but politicians get awfully nervous when objections have been written down.
 

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