With its relentless emphasis on technical problem-solving, engineering education may be overlooking something equally important according to a new study.
The research, by a Rice University sociologist who also has a degree in electrical engineering, finds that engineering students graduate from college less concerned about public welfare than when they entered.
“One of the solutions to the complexity of engineering is to take away anything that is nontechnical,” says the study’s author, Erin Cech, who based her findings on a survey of 300 students at four unnamed engineering schools. “You just have the students solve the problems on the tests and put a box around the answers.”
This encourages a “culture of disengagement,” Cech says. And, she says, it may later discourage graduates from being sensitive to the needs of consumers, avoiding conflicts of interest, or blowing the whistle on design flaws.
“There seems to be very little time or space in engineering curricula for nontechnical conversations about how particular designs may reproduce inequality,” Cech says. For example, “debating whether to make a computer faster, more technologically savvy, and expensive, versus making it less sophisticated and more accessible for customers.”
People from different cultural backgrounds may approach technology in ways to which designers should be sensitive, Cech says. And it’s even more important for engineers to understand public welfare as they rise up through the ranks to management positions.
“If we think about the role of professionals in society, they have a monopoly on a particular kind of knowledge,” Cech says. “As a tradeoff, society expects that professionals take the public welfare into concern in the work they do.”
Yet while it’s been pushed by accrediting agencies and professional associations, instruction in such topics as ethics is often relegated to separate classes. And Cech found that “presenting this very clean, partitioned-off understanding of public welfare and cultural empathy doesn’t teach students what they need to know.”
Cech surveyed students beginning in 2003 as they entered engineering programs, and then again 18 months after they graduated. They were asked to rate the importance of improving society, being active in their communities, promoting racial understanding, helping others in need, and other issues.
Cech says her findings suggest that topics relating to empathy and public welfare need to be integrated into all of engineering undergraduates’ coursework.
“People have emotional and social reactions to engineered products all the time, and those products shape people’s lives in deep ways,” Cech concludes. “It stands to reason that it is important for engineers to be conscious of broader ethical and social issues related to technology.”