Engineers' blueprint for behaviour

BRONWYN CHESTER | What began in the fall of 1987 as a study group of students and faculty, tossing ideas around about what would strengthen the Faculty of Engineering, has resulted in a sort of declaration of values called The Blueprint.

Why the need for such a document? Student advisor Judy Pharo reported in the faculty's newsletter that while the group felt the faculty promoted individual growth, it could do a better job in creating an environment which fosters sharing, mutual respect, honesty and decency.

Pharo believes that given the challenges facing graduating engineers, they need to know "how to exercise fair and honest judgement when making difficult decisions. They need a framework to help make these decisions: a code of ethics to help earn the community's trust."

The Blueprint is a lofty list of six declarations which touch on such issues as academic integrity: "I will strive to achieve academic excellence through honest effort and continuous evaluation of my goals"; equality: "I will remain committed to the equal rights and opportunities of all persons"; and respect for University property: "I will treat University property with respect and pride to ensure that our physical environment is conducive to learning and study."

Does this mean that there are problems with cheating on assignments, mistreating members of minority groups or women or defacing university property?

No, say Pharo, fourth year student Jeff Karp and Associate Dean (Student Affairs and Records) Frank Mucciardi, three founders of the group that also includes six other students, four of whom are female. The image of the engineering student as a sexist, rowdy boor prone to going on drunken rampages is long gone. Thirty per cent of the students in the faculty are female, while 25 per cent of them hail from other countries.

The reason for The Blueprint, say its creators, is to promote thought and provide a common point for all engineering students and teachers. "We think of it as being the beginning of the reflection process of becoming an engineer while the Ceremony of the Calling of an Engineer is the end point, " says Pharo.

This latter ceremony, held near the end of final year, is uniquely Canadian. It involves placing a ring on the baby finger of the working hand of the new engineer and symbolizes the importance of ethical decision making. The ceremony originated in 1925 after the collapse in 1907 of a bridge in Quebec City and the first "iron rings" were made of steel from the bridge.

Mucciardi teaches the ethics section of the first-year course, "Professional Practice, Occupational Health and Safety." He has used The Blueprint in his class as an example of a code of ethics or principles, something he feels is timely, given all the talk about ethics stirred by those who disregard them -- he points to President Bill Clinton, Prime Minister Jean Chrétien and the International Olympic Committee.

One student has already put The Blueprint to use, when a professor would not reschedule her midterm to allow her to compete in Hawaii in a triathlon scheduled months in advance. After the Blueprint principle regarding encouraging "participation in extracurricular activities to foster a sense of community within the faculty" was pointed out to him, the professor reconsidered his recalcitrance and rescheduled the student's test.

"Students and staff are very busy with daily stuff so it's not often that they think about other people or ethics," remarks Karp. "If The Blueprint provokes that, it will have served its purpose."

Pharo believes that the fact that engineering is so competitive also undermines the development of civil behaviour among students. "The students become competitive and it's easy to forget basic values."

And just how will The Blueprint be used?

To begin, at the ceremony to be held on March 17 to inaugurate the 40-X-22-inch plaque on which the document, in both official languages, will be engraved, students subscribing to the principles will be invited to sign a ledger.

In following years, first year students will also have the opportunity to sign at an annual ceremony to be held during frosh week. However, there is nothing binding in the signing; the action is intended as a gesture of belonging to a community upholding certain values.

The Blueprint will also be visible, not only in the entrance of the McConnell Building, but also in all examination booklets, admissions brochures, student newspapers and on the mousepads to be handed out at next month's ceremony. Costs for the plaque and ceremony, which amount to $5,000, will be covered by the Office of the Dean.

Have there been detractors? A few, says Karp, have commented on the exercise being a waste of time. "But have they thought about every line?" he wonders. Mucciardi interjects: "We're not trying to solve anything, but I'd rather be pro-active than reactive."