This paper on “The Concrete Sumo: Exigent Decision-Making in Engineering” by Taft H. Broome, Jr. is a difficult read because it tells a story first, and then explains who the characters are; read it twice back-to-back.

In the Johnny-on-the-Spot, Tubby was the first to speak to me: “No court in the land,” he said, “would blame you for letting the sumo dump the concrete in the entrance way. Its not your fault that they left you alone on your first day!” Then, Roebling began to speak: “You are an engineer, and engineers sacrifice all for their responsibilities to the business of engineering!” Finally, Uncle Roy, the engineer after whom I had patterned my career, spoke to me: “This job belongs as much to you as to anyone else. So, you have a duty to either move this project along, or resign!”

My last day on the job was occasioned by my acceptance to graduate school, and by lunch treated me by the superintendent and the project manager. We exchanged pleasantries before I recalled for them the elevator pit task left to me on my first day. I expected the superintendent to say that the carpenter foreman was alerted to the plot and instructed to prevent any catastrophe. Instead, he recalled for me that on his first day he was likewise abandoned and thus laid out a church, not only in the wrong direction, but also on the wrong lot! Without any apology at all he said: “When it comes to rookie engineers, it is better to pay early, than to pay later.”

The afterward explains the simplified procedure:

A year ago, I agreed to instruct an ethics workshop for undergraduate engineering students in preparation for the Fundamentals of Engineering Examination (FEE). The FEE is the first step toward licensure. The workshop was scheduled for ninety minutes. I convened the workshop by passing out a trial examination in professional ethics. Instead of lecturing on ethics as I had planned, it occurred to me to ask the students to take the examination. Fifteen minutes later, they had finished. Then I asked them to think of an aged, highly mature person: a family member or some legendary character; someone who exhibited great wisdom and caring for others. Then I asked the students to re-do the examination, but this time putting their sage in the position of test taker. Finally, I gave them the solution to the examination and asked them to grade both responses, theirs and the responses of the sages. The results were surprising: the first responses were either failures or marginal passes; the second responses maximized the examination! I then adjourned what turned out to be a forty-minute workshop.

The following semester, one of the students informed me that he had taken the FEE and passed it, and had done very well on its ethics portion.

Perhaps the literary approach to problem solving in ethics and deference to the old yet have places in engineering, in practice as well as in the classroom, today.