College of Engineering Ethics Week addresses wrongs behind Bay Bridge

Robin Simmonds/Staff

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During a lecture on Monday, Charles Piller, a reporter for the Sacramento Bee, talked to a classroom full of students and faculty members about some of the more dangerous problems of the recently opened Bay Bridge, revealed in his 2011 investigation of the bridge’s construction.

Piller’s lecture tackled the investigation surrounding fabricated technical testing, overlooked miscalculations in the structure of the bridge and the role of powerful actors in dismissing important problems. His talk is one of several events during the College of Engineering’s Ethics Week, which is part of a larger-scale venture that aims to educate students in ethical responsibility in engineering.

The problems with the bridge were first brought to Piller’s attention after a tip from a whistleblower within Caltrans. Among other points, Piller emphasized the importance of engineers working within their field of knowledge, adding that, for example, there were no experts involved in the technical testing of the bridge’s foundation. Other problems he mentioned included metal rods that were found to have corroded due to water leaks and that were not examined until two years later.

UC Berkeley civil engineering professor Abolhassan Astaneh-Asl, who facilitated Piller’s talk, further emphasized the significance of ethical responsibility of engineers in their work.

“If doctors make an unethical decision, they will kill one, 10 or 20,” Astaneh-Asl said during his presentation. “If you engineers make an unethical decision, you can kill thousands.”

In addition to the lecture, the engineering ethics week, which runs from April 7 to 11, also includes an ethics-in-industry panel on Tuesday, a screening and analysis of the film “Wall-E” on Wednesday and the keynote lecture on Thursday held by Dale Dougherty, founder of Maker Media.

The week of events was made possible after a donation by alumnus Warren Minner and his wife. The contribution also helped create a committee of Minner Fellows, professors nominated to disseminate engineering ethics in their regular academic curriculums. The committee is chaired by campus nuclear engineering professor Joonhong Ahn.

“One of the main problems that we have detected is the lack of interest of students toward ethics,” Ahn said in an interview. “How do we stimulate them to learn about these issues and head in the right direction and hold these ideas throughout their careers?”

Currently, there is an ethics course specific to engineering fields offered on campus. Raluca Scarlat, a postdoctoral scholar in the nuclear engineering department, is teaching the course “Ethics, Engineering, and Society,” which aims to create a bridge between engineering and other fields, such as sociology or philosophy.

“(Ethics) don’t only help us understand our professional responsibilities — they empower us and show us ideas and our roles as engineers of the future,” said Sonia Travaglini, a doctoral student in mechanical engineering enrolled in the course.

Contact Robin Simmonds at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @@rsimmonds_dc.