An Unfamiliar Ring
The Order of the Engineer is an important symbol of our professional responsibilities. Unfortunately, too few faculty and students are encouraged to join.
Opinion by Debra Larson
Each year, more than 140,000 baccalaureate or master’s degree students graduate from our engineering programs. Yet only about 15,000 are initiated annually into the Order of the Engineer, a symbol of our profession’s duty to serve humanity, respect the Earth, and, as the Obligation says, “participate in none but honest enterprises.”
Why the yawning gap in numbers? Most newly graduated engineers are not offered the opportunity to take the Obligation. One reason may be that most faculty do not belong and may even be unfamiliar with it. Look around you. How many of your colleagues wear the stainless steel ring that signifies membership?
The paucity of faculty in the Order is a missed opportunity for engineering education. For many students, the only engineer they know is the one who is in the front of their class. They respect and emulate teachers who transform their lives. ABET Criterion 3f requires that students display “an understanding of professional and ethical responsibility.” While a number of engineering schools offer ethics classes or weave ethics into introductory courses, the sight of faculty members sporting the ring serves to reinforce those lessons. It’s an unspoken reminder to students of the ethical dimension of engineering and a sign that their instructors take it seriously.
We all know what makes a good engineer: technical prowess that is grounded by theory, problem-solving acumen, design intelligence, and virtuous character. Undergraduate engineering curricula are tightly connected to the society our graduates serve. Quality is maintained by a nearly universal commitment to accreditation. Virtue — synonymous with good thinking — isn’t just about adopting the right technique. It’s a moral enterprise that is tested daily. Borrowing from the 2007 book Intellectual Virtues by Robert C. Roberts and W. Jay Wood, good thinking consists of a love of learning, courage, firmness, generosity, autonomy, and humility.
The Obligation embodies all of these characteristics of intellectual virtue. It is readily available to all engineers who have graduated from an ABET-accredited program, and have publicly pledged to practice integrity and fair dealing, tolerance and respect, and to uphold devotion to the standards and dignity of the profession. There are no exams, no applications, no dues, no meetings to attend, and no formal membership responsibilities. Simply, members are asked to accept the Obligation; to ethical practice and serving with humility.
Induction is easy. It takes two or three members of the Order to officiate a ceremony, often held in association with commencement. They provide a welcome, a history, and a presentation on the significance of the Order and the ring. They lead the candidates through the Obligation, which is then followed by the awarding of certificates and rings. An hour later, another group of engineers have become members of the Order, proudly wearing the ring of a dignified profession with ethical responsibilities.
Simple though it is, the ceremony can make a deep impression on new engineering graduates. I asked a recent mechanical engineering graduate who is starting an exciting career in the mobile computing industry – an industry that does not require engineering licensure – why she took the Obligation. She said: “I want to be reminded that I am an engineer with certain values that I need to abide by. I want to announce to the world that I am part of something important.”
Let’s provide each of our newly minted graduates with the opportunity to take the Obligation, to wear the ring of our profession, and to be reminded daily about the responsibility to serve without reservation for public good. Making this available to all – especially to the many of our colleagues in non-PE disciplines – can strengthen the standing of the profession in society.
Let’s do this by first inviting our very own faculty into the Order. Helpful hints, ring logistics, and suggested scripts are provided on the Order’s website at www.order-of-the-engineer.org. Then let’s organize ceremonies for our graduates. Accepting the Obligation and wearing the ring are great first steps for engineers to take in building the moral fortitude to do the right thing. Their character will be tested daily. Let’s help them pass the next set of tests outside the halls of the academy.
Debra Larson is dean of engineering at CalPoly San Luis Obispo.