A lack of time for nontechnical conversations in engineering curricula could be contributing to a "culture of disengagement"

Engineering education may foster 'disengagement'

Engineering education may foster a “culture of disengagement” when it comes to issues of public welfare, according to new research.

The study found that students at four US colleges became more cynical and less concerned with public policy and social engagement issues throughout the course of their studies, despite being required to learn the profession’s code of ethics, which includes taking the safety, health and welfare of the public seriously.

Author Erin Cech, an assistant professor of sociology at Rice University in Texas who has degrees in both electrical engineering and sociology, said the study found that engineering students leave college less concerned about public welfare than when they entered.

“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 said. “My study found that this is not necessarily the case for the engineering students in my sample.”

The study used survey data from more than 300 students who entered engineering programs as freshmen in 2003 at four US universities in the Northeast and participants were surveyed in the spring of each year and at 18 months after graduation.

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.

Cech believes that the “culture of disengagement” found by the study 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 said. “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.”

Cech said 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.

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

“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.”

Cech became interested in this research topic as an undergraduate electrical engineering student.

“Because I went through engineering education myself, I care deeply about this topic,” she said. “I want to advance the conversation about how engineering education can be the best it can possibly be.”

The study is due to appear in an upcoming issue of the journal Science, Technology and Human Values.

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