Does Engineering Breed Social Apathy?

Monday, November 25th, 2013
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A new study by an engineer turned sociologist claims that training in the discipline can lead to an increased level of indifference to broader social concerns.

The study was conducted by Erin Cech, an assistant professor of sociology at Houston’s Rice University who holds a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering. Cech found that engineering students were less concerned about matters of social welfare following graduation than when they first commenced their degrees.

Erin Cech

Erin Cech

Her paper, entitled Culture of Disengagement in Engineering Education? is slated for publication in an upcoming issue of the journal Science Technology and Human Values and is believed to be the first sociological research of its kind applied specifically to the engineering field. The paper examined survey data from a total of four colleges in the US to assess changes in the views of students on social and ethical issues throughout the course of their training.

A total of 300 students who commenced engineering programs as freshman in 2003 took part in the study and were surveyed on their views about a broad range of topics in the spring of each year of their degree as well as 18 months after graduation.

The survey asked students to rate the importance of their professional and ethical duties and to provide their individual opinions about broader social improvements, making contributions to the community, fostering racial understanding, and providing succor to the needy.

It also asked whether other less tangible issues, such as ethical and social matters and the policy implications of their professional work, were relevant to their training as engineers.

According to Cech, her research found that many budding engineers emerge from college with a more cynical attitude than when they first entered, despite the recent emphasis placed upon ethical training and the requirement that engineering students learn the profession’s code of ethics, which encompasses issues of 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 said. “My study found that this is not necessarily the case for the engineering students in my sample.”

Cech said her academic interest in the topic was prompted by her experiences 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 Rice University sociologist believes social awareness should comprise an integral part of an engineer’s training, and its absence from the mindset of students will make for lesser active members of the profession.

“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 said.

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