Course equips graduate students to 'confront big problems'

By Molly Sharlach
January 08, 2019

This article is from the Winter 2019 issue of EQuad News magazine.

Graduate students in Princeton’s engineering school spend years conducting independent research, gaining expertise in their chosen field, and improving their writing and teaching skills.

“But there is more to being a scientist or engineer,” said Claire Gmachl, the Eugene Higgins Professor of Electrical Engineering. “And that is knowing how to be responsible in the profession.”

Engineers, she said, are responsible not just for their data and materials but to colleagues, the greater scientific community, and all of humanity. Since 2011, Gmachl has taught “Responsible Conduct in Research,” a graduate ethics course that examines issues of personal ethics, student-adviser relationships, and academic publishing, as well as broader topics in engineering ethics.

The course offers a safe way “to get some initial exposure to difficult ethical situations without actually being in the situation,” said Andrew Shapiro, a graduate student in electrical engineering who took the course in spring 2018.

Shapiro recalled the space shuttle Challenger disaster as a compelling example of a difficult ethical decision. Students watched and discussed a film that dramatizes the launch of the Challenger, which broke apart just after it took off in January 1986, killing the mission’s seven astronauts. Engineers working on the project had warned of technical problems ahead of the launch. The report of the presidential commission that investigated the accident described a flawed decision-making process, “a conflict between engineering data and management judgments,” and problems with management structures.

The film allows students to experience the pressure felt by engineers involved with the project, said Gmachl, and to consider strategies for handling such dilemmas in their careers and clearly voicing their concerns about problems.

“If you have multiple ways of framing your argument, you are more likely to get through to someone,” she said. “Learning how different people will negotiate a situation and being able to work with the other person from their point of view is important.”

She gives students an overview of ethical theories in addition to exploring a variety of case studies. Class discussions sometimes involve a clicker system that allows students to respond anonymously to questions. The course culminates in group presentations focusing on 21st-century ethical problems in engineering. Recently, issues of machine learning and big data have been especially popular.

“Being able to really confront big problems in the world is important,” said Gmachl. As an engineer, “in your little way, you are having a huge impact — you are changing the world. And you want to do that in the best possible way.”