New Lecture Series Focuses On Ethics In Engineering

SOCORRO, N.M. January 26, 2011 – The Office of the State Mine Inspector and the Mineral Engineering Department are organizing a new lecture series that focuses on ethics and professional responsibility this spring.  Professor Navid Mojtabai and State Mine Inspector Terence Foreback have been preparing for the lecture series for over a year.
The explosion and subsequent oil spill at the Deepwater Horizon Oil Rig is the latest high-profile engineering disaster that raised questions about professional responsibility and ethics.  Photo courtesy of the U.S. Chemical Safety Board.
The collapse of the Upper Big Branch Mine in West Virginia lead to a national spotlight being cast on the practices of Massey Energy. Photo courtesy of the Mine Safety and Health Administration

“We’re trying to give our students a background in the philosophy of ethics and how that will affect their day-to-day work,” State Mine Inspector Terence Foreback said. “We want to improve their ability to get the job done the right way and expand their horizons.”

Engineers are constantly faced with decisions that ultimately affect the lives, health and safety of others, Foreback said.  This lecture series, which is also offered as a one-credit class, will help students consider the ramifications of engineering decisions as they enter their careers.

Students can sign up for the lecture series as a class, Mineral Engineering 489; however, Foreback emphasized that the lectures are open to the entire campus community and all students are welcome.

“While some of our speakers are involved in mining, these subjects really apply to all engineering disciplines,” he said. “The catchphrase right now is ‘professional responsibility.’ Even Gov. Martinez used that phrase in her State of the State address. All Tech students can benefit from these talks and this is a worthwhile addition to our course offerings.”

Foreback said two notorious engineering disasters highlight the need for managers to consider their professional responsibilities. The Space Shuttle Challenger broke apart shortly after liftoff in January 1986. In that case, an investigation found that engineers were aware of potential flaws in the O-rings, but did not tell managers.

Foreback said the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill in 2010 will eventually be a case study in engineering ethics as well.

“There appears to be questions about ethics in some of the management decisions made at BP,” Foreback said. “And questions about how seriously people took their professional responsibilities.”

Foreback and Mojtabai have lined up a diverse group of guest speakers for the lecture series to give students a wide spectrum of viewpoints. Speakers include representatives of mining companies, a non-profit environmental  group, professional ethics groups, a public relations expert and the Attorney General’s Office.

“I definitely want to give students both the corporate angle – especially on environmental affairs – and the NGO [non-governmental organization] viewpoint on how corporations are doing today,” Foreback said. “Engineers – no matter what they do – have to think about professional responsibility every day. I think it’s imperative that we teach this to our students.”

Mojtabai agreed, saying all Tech students would benefit from attending these lectures – or taking the class, which is Mineral Engineering 489.

“Students need to be exposed to these sorts of discussions,” Mojtabai said. “These issues and topics might focus on mining, but the concepts aren’t any different from any other discipline.”

Ann Wagner, a public policy expert at Chevron Mining Inc.’s Questa Mine, will present a lecture about corporate ethics and environmental affairs. Steve Bessinger of the San Juan Coal Co. will discuss how corporate culture impacts engineering design.

Allyson Siwik is the executive director of the Gila Resource Information Project, an environmental  group in Silver City. Beginning in 1998, the Project pushed for Phelps Dodge Mining Corp. to improve its environmental policies and reclamation plans for its Tyrone and Chine Mines in Grant County. She will give a talk on environmental ethics from a community perspective.

While the full schedule of speakers has not been set yet, Foreback is excited about the line-up so far. Two other speakers represent the New Mexico Professional Engineers & Land Surveyors Board and the New Mexico Ethics Alliance.

Attorney General Gary King will also speak, presenting issues and viewpoints from the government perspective. Tom Garrity, who owns an Albuquerque public relations firm, will focus his talk on social media and electronic communications.

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By Thomas Guengerich/New Mexico Tech