Asee peer logo

Ethical Exotica: Small, Sticky Cases For Analysis

Download Paper |


2009 Annual Conference & Exposition


Austin, Texas

Publication Date

June 14, 2009

Start Date

June 14, 2009

End Date

June 17, 2009



Conference Session

Engineering Ethics: Using Case Studies

Tagged Division

Engineering Ethics

Page Count


Page Numbers

14.585.1 - 14.585.11



Permanent URL

Download Count


Request a correction

Paper Authors


Marilyn Dyrud Oregon Institute of Technology

visit author page

Marilyn A. Dyrud has taught in the Communication Department of Oregon Institute of Technology since 1983 and regularly teaches courses in technical and business writing, public speaking, rhetoric, and ethics. She is active in ASEE as a member of the ETD Board and compiler of the annual “Engineering Technology Education Bibliography.” A past chair of the Pacific Northwest section, she is a regular presenter at annual conferences, a member of the executive committee of the Engineering Ethics Division, and a recent ASEE Fellow. She is also active in the Association for Business Communication and the Association for Practical and Professional Ethics.

visit author page

Download Paper |

NOTE: The first page of text has been automatically extracted and included below in lieu of an abstract

Ethical Exotica: Small, Sticky Cases for Analysis Abstract

This paper examines two relatively unknown cases involving molasses storage tank collapses: the Boston Molasses Flood of 1919 and the 1998 Ingenio Melchor Ocampo Sugar Mill spill, in Jalisco, Mexico. Together, these two events unleashed millions of gallons of molasses on unsuspecting communities, resulting in loss of life and environmental degradation. This paper includes background regarding small cases, an explanation of the cases, consequences, and ethical issues involved.


Anyone who has taught engineering ethics is familiar with the litany of engineering disasters: Challenger, Bhopal, Hyatt Regency walkways collapse, the DC-10 cargo door latch problem, to name but a few. Using such high profile cases has a number of benefits, not least among them impressing upon students the very public nature of the engineering profession.

But what about the scores of smaller cases, which warrant only brief mention--if any--by the media? Or older cases that have faded into the mists of time? Can students learn important lessons from these as well?

This paper presents two cases, suitable for classroom usage, involving storage tank collapses. When most people think of structural failures, they associate them with buildings, bridges or dams: large structures that, when they fail, can involve significant loss of human life. However, tank collapses can result in general havoc as well.

Specifically, this paper examines container collapses involving molasses: the Boston Molasses Flood of 1919 and 1998 Ingenio Melchor Ocampo Sugar Mill disaster. Although separated in time by nearly 80 years, these incidents have similar characteristics and underscore the necessity of ethical decision-making. This paper includes background regarding small cases, an explanation of the cases, consequences, and ethical issues involved.

Using Small Cases

Small cases offer a number of advantages in a classroom setting. While high profile or complex cases such as Chernobyl or Challenger are valuable for study, the sheer amount of information may be prohibitive for those instructors who take an integrated approach in technical courses, rather than farming out students to the philosophy department for their ethics injection. Small cases are much more contained: “By their nature,” Lynch and Klein note, “small cases can never be presented in full enthnographic detail. . . .”1 Because they are much less detailed than major cases, these small classes are easier to incorporate in a technical class.

While studying ethics in general allows students to exercise their moral imaginations, small cases are especially suited to this approach. As Kenneth Winston, faculty member at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, suggests, “. . . students are forced to reflect as much on the

Dyrud, M. (2009, June), Ethical Exotica: Small, Sticky Cases For Analysis Paper presented at 2009 Annual Conference & Exposition, Austin, Texas. 10.18260/1-2--4635

ASEE holds the copyright on this document. It may be read by the public free of charge. Authors may archive their work on personal websites or in institutional repositories with the following citation: © 2009 American Society for Engineering Education. Other scholars may excerpt or quote from these materials with the same citation. When excerpting or quoting from Conference Proceedings, authors should, in addition to noting the ASEE copyright, list all the original authors and their institutions and name the host city of the conference. - Last updated April 1, 2015