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Burks educates professional engineers from across Ohio

On November 4, 2016, Department of Engineering Education Senior Lecturer Angie Burks presented research to over 200 professional engineers at the Ohio Society of Professional Engineers Continuing Professional Development Conference. Prof. Burks’ presentation, Emails as Legal Evidence and Mechanical Failures within Toyota, addressed engineering, ethical and legal issues within the automobile maker. In 2010, a Toyota executive wrote an email about the company’s tendency for mechanical failures in certain accelerator pedals. Four years later, the corporation faced over 400 lawsuits related to mechanical acceleration problems. In light of the aforementioned email and other evidence, Toyota was fined $1.2 billion by the Department of Justice.

Prof. Burks (L) and attendeees of the Ohio Society of Professional Engineers Continuing Professional Development Conference Photo: Robb McCormick

Attendees of Prof. Burks’ presentation learned about several topics, including:

  • The legal liabilities of using electronic communication to manage ethical decisions.
  • The Federal Rules of Evidence that make electronic communication legal evidence and court admissible.
  • And the consequences of ethical versus legal violations in engineering design and practice.

Burks noted that the response to her presentation was overwhelming. “I received a tremendous amount of questions and shared stories," she said. "We have to recognize that the challenge for today’s engineer is not just making ethical decisions, but deciding how to manage electronic communication regarding risk-vs-benefit design ratios, cost, testing data, federal regulations and disclosure."

Angie Burks (R) discusses ethical and legal issues at the 2016 conference. Photo: Robb McCormickBurks has also developed other engineering ethics and law cases. A Case in Biomedical Engineering Ethics: Severe Bone Fractures, Implant Screws and a Billionaire Investor is a fictional scenario that examines poorly designed implant screws rushed to the market through the FDA 510 (k) device exception classification to profit from severe bone fracture surgeries. Within the case, material science and biomedical engineers must grapple with biocompatibility design issues versus pressure from a billion dollar investor to keep costs low.

Regarding her work with the EED, Burks stated that "earlier this year, Apple, one of the leading engineer-driven, technology giants, faced federal and legal issues concerning smartphones, programming, digital privacy and disclosure. How are we preparing OSU engineering students, who will be corporate directors and vice presidents, for these types of challenges? I am excited and humbled to hopefully be a part of our answer. I believe the Engineering Education Department is a special place to be."

Angie Burks, J.D., is a graduate of the Boston University School of Law and a former Community Builder Fellow at Harvard University. Her research interests include engineering ethics and electronic communication.