Technology-centric engineering students may leave school feeling less concerned with public welfare than when they entered, as schools feel pressure to introduce more technical instruction than ever before.

technology-disengagement-cultureThese results are from a study conducted by Erin Cech, a sociology professor at Rice University who surveyed more than 300 students from four different universities in 2003. She continued to survey those students  throughout their engineering education.

The study found that as engineering students continue their education they become less concerned for how the public will interact with the technology or structures they create and more concerned with the purely technical specifications of their design or product.

Cech’s concern is not that students leaving engineering schools across the country are not aware of the public welfare problems, but that they see those issues as irrelevant when designing a new product or coming up with a solution to an engineering problem.

“Engineering education seems to value purely technical concerns over social concerns,” said Cech, who added that science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) courses have created a “culture of disengagement.” “Knowledge of public welfare is kind of bracketed off.”

Some students disagree with the results of the study, citing their experiences in engineering school.

Jill Janovsky, a senior studying civil engineering at Purdue University said her school does not require an ethics course.

Professors stress that the problem solving techniques they teach in the classroom will have real world consequences, and students are encouraged to take classes that partner with engineering firms and companies such as Boeing.

“Being at Purdue for four years — two years as a TA — and helping new people in engineering, I think she may have a limited scope,” Janovsky said. “Here at Purdue they relate everything back to the real world and encourage you to go out and do community outreach to see how problem solving affects the real world.”

Although many engineering schools require students to take a separate engineering ethics course to graduate, the problem, Cech said, is that ethical issues are rarely addressed in traditional engineering classes.

Megan Angelini, a student at the University of Maryland’s A. James Clark School of Engineering, disagrees.

Angelini, a senior in the school’s civil engineering program, said although public welfare and ethical issues are “not the most important or most stressed thing,” they are addressed in class.

“I would definitely say it is something that is brought up enough that you are aware of the issues when you are talking about engineering problems,” Angelini said.

Not all students feel the same though. Chris Woodruff, a University of Maryland senior in the same civil engineering program as Angelini, said he thinks there is room for improvement in the engineering curriculum when it comes to learning about ethics in engineering.

“If you’re talking about social welfare issues, such as if we should focus on building things for other countries, there is not a huge focus on it,” Woodruff said. “There are things like Engineers Without Borders to get involved in, but I think the curriculum itself is not necessarily focused on that.”

Despite the seemingly negative results of the Cech’s study, she said she has received positive feedback from both engineering students as well as professors from engineering schools.

“Schools are feeling a crunch to get more and more technical material in and that tends to leave even less room for teaching ethics in the classroom,” Cech said. “I’ve had professors say they noticed the problem but didn’t have a way of talking about it.”

The challenge in engineering education, Woodruff believes, is that problems rarely have a clear answer, and it is hard to say which course of action would be the best approach.

“If there is a project that is going to, let’s say, cause environmental damage, sometimes the benefits outweigh the impact of the damage,” Woodruff said “We learn to try offset the damage, but sometimes the public needs something more than the environment does.”

Peter Sclafani is an editorial intern at eCampus News.

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