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The First AIChE Safety & Ethics Conferences Changes Students' Understanding of Engineering

The BYU AlChE Chapter President Alexa Lowman expected 50 students in attendance. Instead, over 200 students came. This conference would change their perspective unlike anything ever done before.

Around 250 students flooded into the Hinkley Center on the morning of Saturday, January 8. Dressed in their best business attire, many clutched resumes while waiting in line to grab some Hruska’s Kolaches, seat themselves in the conference room, and wait for the final day of the BYU Engineering Safety and Ethics Conference to begin.

Alexa Lowman, former president of the BYU American Institute of Chemical Engineers (AIChE) chapter, began the creation of this event nearly two years before it took place. As a sophomore, Lowman wanted to use her upcoming years in the organization effectively and hypothesized how she could distinguish their AIChE chapter. In the Summer of 2020, she began to brainstorm. Meanwhile, Lowman also started an internship with Chevron, who continued to reemphasize to their employees: safety. Ethicality. Lowman thought this was unique, until the following year when she interned for Cummins, a power solutions company, and the same thing happened. The company emphasized: safety and ethics.

The company representatives enriched the AIChE Safety and Ethics Conference by providing insights to students about working as engineer and having to grapple with different dilemmas. In addition, representatives took time to talk with students one-on-one and engage in conversations with them.

Then she realized. “There’s a gap of getting this taught at school. We, at BYU, could help prepare our students to be more impactful in their careers,” Lowman said. “I think that aligns perfectly with our university's statement.”

Embracing the statement, “Enter to learn; go forth to serve,” the chapter began to incentivize students to prepare minute-long safety ideas to share with their peers. This helped, but Lowman didn’t want to settle there. She wanted to take the minute-long focus on safety and extend it to something bigger. Lowman hypothesized hosting a two-day long conference.

After applying for and receiving a Weidman Center Grant for the event, Lowman said that everything started to fall into place. She met a prominent engineer in safety and ethics while attending an awards ceremony with her husband. That engineer, Deborah Grubbe, heard about the conference and happily agreed to be the keynote speaker. Thirteen various company representatives agreed to fly to the event and because they did not have time to get corporate approval for funding, many of those representatives used their own money to finance their travel and stay. Finally, AIChE sent out the RSVP to students and over 200 of the 250 available spots were filled within the first few days.

President and owner of Operations and Safety Solutions Deborah Grubbe gave a compelling lecture that put students in the right mindset for the rest of the conference. Early on her lecture, she said, "What you do or how you do it, and what you say or what you don't say can impact the lives of others."

“We’re doing exactly what we’re supposed to be doing if people care about this so much … It will help to distinguish BYU as a place that produces ethical and safe engineers,” Lowman said.

With all the preparational success and additional funding from the Sorenson Center, the College of Engineering, Valero Energy Corporation, and Boyd Hill from Northrop Grumman, the organization and other student employees enabled the participants to experience a new, exciting way to learn about and network with others in the engineering career field.

The conference started with an “amazing race” on Friday, January 7. Students explored the engineering buildings and learned about safety ideas at stations that prepared them for the larger portion of the conference on the following day. Those who visited all the stations received pizza as an award. Then, AIChE emailed and reminded students about important information for Saturday: dress well and bring your resumes. So, they did.

The following morning, Lowman gave a short introduction, Engineering Dean Michael Jensen spoke briefly, and then the conference started with an all-encompassing speech about safety and ethics from Grubbe. This kicked off many events that would inspire students.

Throughout the day these events included Q&A panels, workshops, and various networking opportunities. Regardless of their major, as students moved from activity to activity, they could individually discover something unique to help them in their future careers as engineers. For Chemical Engineering sophomore Koen Bailey, the panel discussions greatly impacted his perspective on choosing where to work.

During the panelists discussions, students had the opportunity to ask company representatives about their regulations and opinions regarding safety and ethics. As the panelists spoke, students would listen, quickly take notes in their provided notebooks, and every once in a while, laugh at a unexpected joke.

“I remember one of the guys who was talking about ethical dilemmas,” Bailey said. “They said, ‘The most important thing is to have a company that values ethics and morals above all else, and then you don’t put yourself into those dilemmas.’”

As hoped, the conference changed how students thought of their roles as engineers. It meant more than crunching numbers or innovating new technology, but it meant thinking about how the work would effect employees and the community. “I realized just how big of a deal safety is in industry. Even a simple process requires so much thought and analysis to make sure there are no safety issues,” said Chemical Engineering senior Karl Spinti.

With various engineering majors, diverse company representatives, and dedicated employees and volunteers working at the event, the AIChE chapter ensured that each student could benefit from the event. They hope to hold a larger and even more diverse conference next year, so that all can learn how they can make an ethical impact on the world as engineers.