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Methodology for the Construction of Case Studies
in Ethics, Safety, and Liability for Engineering Students
The University of Texas at Austin
Studies in Ethics, Safety, and Liability for Engineers
Kurt Hoover and Wallace T. Fowler

Methodology for the Construction of Case Studies

The issues of ethics, safety, and liability are important for every professional engineer. However, in most undergraduate curriculum, these issues are seldom considered. The authors believe this problem, which has long been ignored, has a simple solution - short assignments involving case studies which can be placed anywhere in the curriculum. Case studies provide an easy and interesting method of introducing the issues of ethics, safety, and liability to undergraduate engineering students.

There is no single right or wrong method for developing a case study. Here we present the most successful procedures developed by the authors. It is the authors' hope that the material provided here and the accompanying sample cases will stimulate others develop their own cases. Potential case authors should remember that in issues of ethics, safety, and liability, there are seldom absolute rights and wrongs. Each situation calls for understanding of the issues and good judgement. The first step to understanding is questioning. A good case study will typically raise more questions than it answers.


Purpose of Ethics, Liability, and Safety Case Studies:

The purpose of the case studies is to expose engineering students to the issues of ethics, safety, and liability. No attempt should be made to provide the students with a complete set of guidelines for these issues. Each individual must form a personnel opinion on these issues. This is an integral part of developing an ethical sense.

Case studies can be introduced into the undergraduate curriculum. The author should have a target level in mind, but should write the case study so that it could be used a several semesters before or after the target semester. Each case study should provide the student with a real life scenario where the issues of ethics, safety, and liability are important. A successful case study should stimulate at least as many questions as it answers. As instructors consider topics for case studies, care should be taken in choosing complex situations. It is recommended that each case be kept short enough to be examined in one class period. A part of a second class period might be devoted to various group discussions if the instructor so desires.

Each of the case studies developed by the authors is designed to take from ten to thirty minutes in the classroom. The case studies are intended to be used at any level in an aerospace engineering or mechanical engineering curriculum by inserting a single case study into an appropriate course at an opportune point. The pedagogical strategy used in developing the example cases was to make it unnecessary to restructure the undergraduate curriculum to accommodate a new class in ethics, safety, and liability.

Choosing a Case Study Topic:

It is an unfortunate truth that accidents and failures are usually more interesting and almost always more newsworthy than routine successes. Accidents and failures make good events for case studies for several reasons. First, more is usually known and written about accidents and failures than successes (the press does a lot of the initial homework for us). Second, the issues of ethics, safety, and liability are often more clearly evident in accidents and failures. Third, it is often easier to learn from failures than from successes.

However, not all accidents or failures can be used to produce a successful case study. The "good" potential case study event must have sufficient visibility so that it is well documented. Some events, although interesting, are not sufficiently well documented to allow the average instructor to construct a good case just from the information in the public domain.

In addition to being sufficiently well documented, a potential case study event should not be too recent. Although recent events generate more interest, they may not make good cases because many of the issues are still not clear. It is recommended that all investigations into the event be completed and all lawsuits settled before an event is used for a case study. The potential case study author should allow enough time for the details of the event to be sifted, and the clearest, most accurate picture of all portions of the event to develop.

IMPORTANT NOTE: Begin collection of information on an event as soon as it is determined that the event has case study potential. This will often be years before the case study is written. However, the collection of information on an event is much easier if it is part of an ongoing process. Also, much information such as that from newspapers, TV news, etc. will be very difficult to retrieve if not preserved as it happens.

Researching the Case Study Topic:

There are many potential sources of information for the development of case studies. First hand interviews with the parties involved is one of the best sources of information, but is frequently difficult, time consuming, or impossible. Company documents and reports can be quite enlightening, but can be difficult to obtain. The most reliable and easiest to obtain sources of information are usually at large public libraries. Potential case study information in the public domain usually falls into one of three categories: periodicals, books, and government reports.

Periodicals are an excellent place to begin the research for a case study. In aerospace engineering, trade magazines such as Aerospace America and Aviation Week and Space Technology provide a good balance of information about the technical issues, people, and politics involved in case study events. When gathering material for a potential case it is important to keep in mind that people and politics are often more important than the physics.

If available, books focusing on the particular event can be extremely useful, because they often provide more insight into the activities behinds the scenes. Often gathering the technical details about a case is not difficult, but gathering information on the motivations of the people involved is difficult. If such a book is well written, the author will have done a lot of the background research needed for your case study. The book will usually attempt to address more than one point of view.

Government reports can sometimes be the most useful source of information for a case study. Several agencies in the Federal government, such as NTSB, FAA, GAO, OSHA, and OMB, investigate problems and accidents and then prepare written reports. These reports can usually be obtained by the general public. A Federal Depository Library, such as the Public Affairs Library at the University of Texas at Austin, or the Texas State Library in Austin have some government publications on file which may be checked out or copied. Copies of additional government reports can usually be obtained on microfiche for a minimal cost from the appropriate government agency. While some of the government reports are superficial, some are very detailed and provide much more than just technical information.

Writing the Case Study:

There are many possible ways to organize the presentation of a case history. One possible method is that used by the authors. The information of the case history is presented in text form; this portion usually consists of between four and six single spaced pages. The text is followed by a variety of questions and possible assignments for the students. The key point in organizing the case is to provide the students with sufficient understanding of the event and the circumstances involved so that they can begin to understand the dilemmas face by the people involved in the event. When writing a case study, the author take care so that no single viewpoint is projected and should attempt to show the viewpoints of all principal parties involved in the case.

One of the best methods of organizing the text is to break it into four sections. The first section or introduction provides the students with a broad overview of the event. The second section provides background information leading up to the event. This portion should explain the various conflicting constraints (all of which probably could never be satisfied simultaneously) which form the basis for the ethics, safety, or liability question(s). This section should also discuss the motivations of the various individuals involved in the event. The third section should present the key components of the event in chronological order. This section also details the decisions made by the people involved. The final section contains the results of the decisions and any actions taken after the event occurred. Typical information in this section would be changes in safety procedures, court decisions, etc.

A good case study should not be overly technical. Although technical questions are involved, the key emphasis should be placed ethics, safety, and liability. At the same time, the technical issues must be integrated into the information in proportion to their importance to the case. After reading a case study, the student may not understand all the rationale for the decisions made, but should have a feeling for some of the reasoning involved. Most importantly, the student should be able to recognize some of the dilemmas presented and should begin to consider possible alternate courses of action. The case history should present sufficient information for the students to be able to see themselves as one of the characters involved in the case.

The case study should provide assignments designed to make the students think about ethics, safety, and liability. The purpose of the case study itself is to stimulate thinking, and thus provide the students with some level of experience in these important areas. Some questions may require the students to do addition research; all should require additional thought. One of the most beneficial assignments is role playing. Students can act out the roles of the various individuals involved in the case and wrestle with the same dilemmas face by the actual people involved in the event. Such assignments can be very useful in bringing issues to a personnel level.

In preparing the case study, provide references to your source documents as appropriate. In particular, provide references for controversial statements and/or conclusions. Your goal is to present the facts concerning the situation and to suggest possible interpretations. It is NOT your goal to suggest which party might or might not be responsible. You want to leave this to the students. LET THE STUDENTS DRAW THE CONCLUSIONS!

Reviewing the Case Study:

Review of case study by several faculty is a good idea. Often faculty asked to review a case will want to try it out in the classroom. This is a good idea and should be encouraged. Feedback from the classroom is very valuable in refining a case study.

A second review is also recommended. If the potential case study author can find an engineering faculty member who is also a lawyer, ask this colleague to review the materials for both engineering and legal issues. Such a review could preclude later problems with YOUR liability.

Testing the Case Study:

Student reaction is the ultimate test of a case study. If it stimulates thought and discussion about the issues, it is doing the job for which it was designed. Otherwise, it needs revision. Also, student reaction can be used to define unclear issues, event sequences, etc. Never be shy about revising a case study. Either revise it yourself by appending material to it or get the information to the original authors.