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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

A Fairness & Justice Approach to Engineering

Rafael Guerrero

Whether you and your team have been developing your senior thesis all year long or are putting in work to complete it after the Senior Design Conference, the senior thesis is your team’s culminating undergraduate academic work. Unlike everything that you have completed in your undergraduate career, the senior thesis is a formal academic publication that justifies in print why you and your teammates have earned your bachelor’s degree. This work is as much of a collaborative effort as the entire design project, and serves as a precursor to official publications and documentation you will be responsible for in your engineering career.

While all teams must submit their senior thesis prior to graduation, not every team will successfully complete their design project. The definition of completion of the design project may vary between engineering disciplines at Santa Clara University, but for the purposes of this document, we will understand this to mean the finalizing of a design, and the completion of conceptual design/prototype validation through testing. It is quite common for teams to go through the design process to find that they are unable to successfully deploy their prototype or even come to prototype their design due to time constraints, budget restrictions, or the overall infeasibility of the design. What is important to realize is that even though the senior design project is but a reflection in the senior thesis, your design can have very real implications on real people beyond the senior design project-- especially if your project was done in partnership with a target community or a customer who expects a working prototype.

What does ethics have to do with completing and submitting my senior design thesis?

The senior thesis is the final academic submission of undergraduate engineering from you and your teammates. This means that you and your teammates will assume equal responsibility for the validity of tests, quality of writing, and design work included in your thesis. At the same time, you may find that one member of your team contributed much more to the completion of a subsystem design and fabrication while others focused on other tasks. With regard to teamwork, it may be more appropriate to think in terms of how each team member is working to an extent that contributes to overall fairness within your team.

In ethics, the terms “fairness” and “justice” tend to be used interchangeably to describe how decisions are made so as to be able to give “each person his or her due”, or how individuals are treated within a community in a way that is justifiable with regard to the roles they fulfill (Velasquez, Andre, Shanks, & Meyer, 1990) [1]. The Fairness and Justice Approach does not advocate that “equality” and “fairness” are the same thing. Rather, it recognizes that while members of a community may have the same rights, “individuals should be treated the same, unless they differ in ways that are relevant to the situation in which they are involved”(Velasquez et. al, 1990) [1]. This holds especially true in engineering as it may be inappropriate for engineers of different specialties to have the same contribution or workload in a design that would better be handled by a team member with the proper set of skills.

Your senior design project definitely will have had its moments where you contributed more to some area of the design work than another member, and others where your teammates put in more work in another area that you may not have had the skills for. In my own senior design experience, my skills as a technical writer and machinist meant that I was trusted to take lead in the writing of many deliverables for the senior design course and the fabrication of many parts of our prototype while my teammates worked on design calculations and revisions. Fairness, in the context of teamwork and completing the senior design project and thesis, is about making sure that everyone has an equitable share of the work in the project-- and that the right skills are being applied to the right tasks.

Finally, fairness comes into play when considering the future of your design beyond the senior design project. Because of the limited time in the design project, it is common for senior design teams to not reach the point of a testable or deployable prototype. The senior thesis asks your team to document the processes and results of your design process-- but for the most part, teams are not kept from graduating if their prototype is not ready for implementation. This doesn’t mean, however, that you and your teammates should attempt to do the bare minimum in design work to graduate. As engineering design is always a people’s service, fairness to potential users demands that you and your team do as much as possible in the senior design project to fully iterate upon, prototype, and experimentally validate your design.

Ensuring that your team works to produce a tangible prototype to present to your customer/target community is part of giving each person their due as an engineering team looking to address the needs, wants, and concerns of the people you are looking to serve. This also calls upon respect for the rights of the customer to quality, honest work from the engineers delivering their product, and implicates personal virtues of honesty, reliability, and integrity for engineers to live up to in doing their part in the project and thesis.



[1] Velasquez, Manuel, et al. “Justice and Fairness.” Markkula Center for Applied Ethics, Markkula Center for Applied Ethics, 1 Aug. 2014.

Jun 29, 2018