For engineering students, a lesson in caring?

Ignoring social responsibility issues does a disservice to engineering students, Erin Cech says, because practicing engineers are required to address social welfare concerns on a regular basis, even if it involves a conflict of interest or whistleblowing. (Credit: abuakel/Flickr)

Many people inside and outside engineering have emphasized the importance of training ethical, socially conscious engineers, but Erin Cech, assistant professor of sociology at Rice University wondered if engineering education in the US actually encourages young engineers to take seriously their professional responsibility to public welfare.

“There’s an overarching assumption that professional engineering education results in individuals who have a deeper understanding of the public welfare concerns of their profession,” she says. “My study found that this is not necessarily the case for the engineering students in my sample.”

Published in the journal Science, Technology and Human Values, a new study included more than 300 students who entered engineering programs as freshmen in 2003 at four US universities in the Northeast. Rice students were not included in the study.

Participants were surveyed in the spring of each year and at 18 months after graduation. In the surveys, students were asked to rate the importance of professional and ethical responsibilities and their individual views on the importance of improving society, being active in their community, promoting racial understanding and helping others in need.

In addition, the students were asked how important the following factors are to their engineering programs: ethical and/or social issues, policy implications of engineering, and broad education in humanities and social sciences.

Engineering code of ethics

As part of their education, engineering students learn the profession’s code of ethics, which includes taking seriously the safety, health, and welfare of the public. However, it appears that there is something about engineering education that results in students becoming more cynical and less concerned with public policy and social engagement issues.

Results showed that the students left college less concerned about public welfare than when they entered.

“The way many people think about the engineering profession as separate from social, political, and emotional realms is not an accurate assessment,” Cech says.

“People have emotional and social reactions to engineered products all the time, and those products shape people’s lives in deep ways; so it stands to reason that it is important for engineers to be conscious of broader ethical and social issues related to technology.”

This “culture of disengagement” is rooted in how engineering education frames engineering problem-solving.

“Issues that are nontechnical in nature are often perceived as irrelevant to the problem-solving process,” Cech says.

“There seems to be very little time or space in engineering curricula for nontechnical conversations about how particular designs may reproduce inequality—for example, debating whether to make a computer faster, more technologically savvy and expensive versus making it less sophisticated and more accessible for customers.”

Ignoring these issues does a disservice to students because practicing engineers are required to address social welfare concerns on a regular basis, even if it involves a conflict of interest or whistleblowing, Cech says.

“If students are not prepared to think through these issues of public welfare, then we might say they are not fully prepared to enter the engineering practice.”

The National Science Foundation funded the research.

Source: Rice University