Engineering project team sitting around table

Now is the perfect time for engineering to join the caring professions

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Like members of the medical profession currently tackling the Covid-19 pandemic, engineers should be trained to think about the wider impact on people and society of the decisions they make.

We’ve all been struck by the horror and sadness of doctors, nurses and other medical care workers around the world having to make challenging ethical decisions related to caring for Covid-19 patients. We empathise with their plight and wonder what we would do in their shoes, but try to take confidence in the hope that their years of training and the scenarios they have encountered in their academic courses or residencies will help them.

Indeed, over the past decades, the field of medical humanities - which, according to a paper published in 2002 in the academic journal of the same name, aims to “[understand] the human body not only in medicine’s conventional biological terms but also in sociological, philosophical, psychological and cultural terms” - has been incorporated more and more into medical training.

Many universities now offer standalone degrees in the subject. While humanities training in higher education may not make these difficult choices any easier, it goes some way to preparing medical professionals to meet the challenges they encounter on the job.

Similarly, I believe that humanities training should be a requirement for engineering and technology professionals whose work so profoundly affects human life and the environment.

Education in the liberal arts emphasises dialogue, empathy and ethics, alongside an understanding of human behaviour and culture. It prioritises critical thought and reflection as much as, or more than, rote knowledge. For instance, most literature teachers would rather a student be able to analyse a poem, interpret its meaning and explain its impact, instead of reciting it from memory (although that is also a good skill).

Fortunately, most engineering teachers would also rather a student be able to build a bridge than recite the relevant statics equations - although not enough of those teachers require critical thought from their students about the bridge’s impact on human and ecological communities, or require an ethical analysis of the materials sourced for the bridge alongside the risk analysis.

For many years, I taught a first-year undergraduate engineering course on ethics and communication. One of the very first activities we did was to discuss the question: ‘What is a good engineer?’ At the start of the term, initial answers usually included mathematical proficiency; an analytical mind; a passion for building things, or a desire to solve problems.

By the end of the course, answers to this question dramatically shifted: instead of focusing on ‘engineer’ and the qualities inherent in that noun, students tended to move their focus to the adjective ‘good’. Good still included maths, analysis, building and solving, but it also expanded to include qualities such as transparent, humble, honest, brave, careful and helpful.

It is my dream that engineering is seen as a ‘caring profession’, in the same way as medicine, education and social work. Engineers have the power to shape the world through the choices they make in design and manufacture. A default user setting; an additional centimetre of leg room; an energy-use alert feature - these are all basic technical choices that may feel value-neutral in the lab or workshop, but can have far reaching implications on health, society, the environment and human values.

A classroom setting that requires engineering students to think through the implications of materials sourcing and sustainability, the social impact of their algorithms and the willingness to question whether their solution actually addresses the most pressing problem would go a long way towards achieving this dream.

I hope that one outcome of the Covid-19 crisis is that it reconfirms the need to integrate humanities education in STEM subjects and to create learning opportunities and provide learning spaces and scenarios that allow technical professionals-in-training to practice making the tough choices that they will inevitably have to make on the job. While they might not see it on a day-to-day basis, engineers and scientists can save lives - or potentially create harm - through their work. It’s important for engineering educators to acknowledge this and to embed dialogue, critical thought and reflection into students’ work.

The current pandemic has revealed flaws in many systems, from supply chains to finance to infrastructure. Yet it has also demonstrated the human need for connection, our instinct to help solve problems and an endless array of creative approaches to do both. We can trust that this nation’s engineers are well equipped with the technical mastery they need. We also need to ensure that they have experience in ethical reasoning, working with diverse populations and reflecting on the societal and environmental impact of their technical solutions.

Integrating the humanities in engineering education - not just through standalone courses, but in engineering problems themselves - is one way to ensure our technical professionals of the future are as adept as our medical professionals at making tough choices in tough times.

Sarah Hitt is full professor in engineering education at New Model Institute for Technology and Engineering (NMITE).

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