How Berkeley MEng candidates are shaping innovation by leading with ethics

By Maya Rector

The SFMTA Capstone Team from left to right: Kris Datta, Alec L’Amoreaux, Alex Skabardonis (faculty advisor), Thibault Jauffrineau, Hamza Syed, and Andrew Chuing

As they work on their nine-month Capstone projects, Master of Engineering (MEng) candidates need to assess the ethical ramifications of their work: How will the technological advancements they develop impact society? As engineering leaders, how can we shape a research agenda that will connect technical innovation with people and businesses, and use data in ways that will change the world?

Kathleen Powers, PhD candidate and Berkeley MEng GSI for E295: Communications for Engineering Leaders, developed an ethics assignment to help MEng candidates gain a real-life understanding of the importance of ethics within the field of engineering. The assignment challenged students to choose their own unintended consequence to help them understand that every single engineering project comes with its own set of consequences. This positioned students to focus on the user experience and apply their design-thinking skills to gain insight to how every step of their project had potential ethical consequences at stake. It allowed them to ruminate on each step of their project to create schematized versions of how their project could affect other people, and the environment around them. Questions included how their projects could affect political order, the labor force, workers, consumers, and more!


Case Study: The Ethics of Creating Functional Transportation

The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA)’s mission is to connect San Francisco through a safe, equitable, and sustainable transportation system. One of their ongoing challenges in servicing commuters are the 38 and 38R buses along San Francisco’s Geary Blvd. It suffers from slow speeds and frequent delays along one of the busiest corridors on the west coast. The Advanced Mobility Strategies Capstone team comprised of Andrew Chuing, Alec L’Amoreaux, Kris Datta, Thibault Jauffrineau, and Hamza Syed, advised by Professor Alexander Skabardonis, worked with the SFMTA to uncover a solution.

Advancing Mobility Strategies/SFMTA team member Kris Datta, MEng CEE ‘18, explains the details of the project below:

Tell us more about your Capstone project.

Our Capstone team worked with the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Authority (SFMTA) to simulate the implementation of Transit Signal Priority (TSP) along the 38/38R bus routes which travel along Geary and O’Farrell Streets. TSP facilitates faster bus trips by modifying the green time on signals (either by extending green cycle times or by starting green cycles earlier) to give priority to buses. Successful implementation of TSP would reduce delays for buses and for passengers, resulting in increased reliability and reduced road congestion across the whole bus system. The team developed traffic simulations demonstrating TSP’s effectiveness by using Synchro and Vissim; the SFMTA can use the team’s findings as one step towards approving the TSP system.

How did ethics play a role in your project?

Throughout the project, the team had to make sure that transportation equity was maintained for users across all modes of transportation. One potential unintended consequence of TSP is that traffic signals which give priority to buses may cause longer wait times for vehicular traffic. Since several regions of San Francisco are poorly served by transit and are auto-centric, it is important to maintain transportation equity; therefore, the Capstone team had to ensure in their simulations that a decrease in total bus commuter travel time is not completely offset by an increase in total vehicular travel time.

What were some of the difficulties in regards to ethics that you and your team faced?

The team didn’t run into many difficulties upholding the ethical considerations when simulating TSP implementation. There were only one or two instances where drivers on side streets along the observed corridor (Geary & O’Farrell Streets, between Van Ness and Kearny Streets) may have suffered significant delays and a worse Level of Service (a qualitative metric describing traffic quality) as a result of buses obtaining priority. The one street which suffered a worse Level of Service is also situated next to a street which is currently closed for subway construction; this worse Level of Service may be attributed to higher-than-normal traffic flow due to ongoing construction.

What’s the most important thing you learned and were able to take away from your project?

We learned during our project that the ethical considerations of any given problem can be just as difficult to address as its technical complexity. Managing transportation equity was not a particularly large or difficult task, which we had to address in our project; if anything, it was out of our team’s project scope and more so an issue which our client must constantly keep in mind, but many other projects in the Capstone program are situated in environments where successful outcomes may be constrained by questionable ethical outcomes.

We learned during our project that the ethical considerations of any given problem can be just as difficult to address as its technical complexity.

We also spoke with Lee Fleming, Faculty Director at the Fung Institute for Engineering Leadership. Throughout his years of teaching, Lee sees the annual Capstone projects within the MEng program as a great opportunity to instill the importance of ethics within engineering to students. He shared, “Capstone projects allow students to think about the ethical implications of their work and how it could change people’s lives. It has been a rewarding assignment to ask students to think about who their work will impact and how it will make an impact.”

“Capstone projects allow students to think about the ethical implications of their work and how it could change people’s lives. It has been a rewarding assignment to ask students to think about who their work will impact and how it will make an impact.”

With emerging technology such as artificial intelligence and machine learning, there are a multitude of tough ethical dilemmas at the forefront that urge further interrogation. However, he believes that society as a whole has to decide the answers to these questions. “We can’t leave it all to the technologists, and we also can’t leave it all to the outsiders who might not have much of technical understanding. The great thing about the Master of Engineering program is that MEng students sit at the interface of this divide.”

As MEng students advance in their capstone projects and approach graduation, they are faced with an increasingly exciting and rapidly growing technological world. Despite the challenges that come with navigating this ever-changing environment, MEng students have the ability and potential to offer a refreshing, holistic perspective when it comes to both the technical and ethical dilemmas that arise in today’s society, and we look forward to seeing how they play a role in changing the world.

The SFMTA capstone team from left to right: Hamza Syed, Alec L’Amoreaux, Kris Datta, Thibault Jauffrineau, Andrew Chuing