Engineering students leave college less concerned about public welfare compared to when they first started out, according to a new study. Such a decline in concern about social issues could prove problematic in a technologically-driven world shaped by engineers—especially if engineering students go on to become influential tech leaders such as Larry Page or Marissa Mayer.
The new Rice University research blames a "culture of disengagement" in engineering education as a big reason why students slacken off in their concern about public welfare. The latter Rice defined as beliefs about professional and ethical responsibilities, understanding the consequences of technology, understanding how people use machines, and social consciousness. But the study also suggested how engineering programs could reverse the sense of apathy toward social issues.
"I think the one-class or one-credit ethics course approach, which is bracketed off from what is seen by some as the 'real' (technical) engineering content, may be part of the problem," Erin Cech, an assistant professor of sociology at Rice University, told IEEE Spectrum in an email. Instead, "folding in discussions of ethics and social welfare into circuits and thermodynamics courses—thereby making ethics and public welfare legitimate topics of conversation in these spaces—may help."
Cech first became interested in such issues as an undergraduate electrical engineering student (she holds B.S. degrees in both electrical engineering and sociology). She carried out her latest study, detailed in the journal Science, Technology & Human Values, with funding from the U.S. National Science Foundation.
The research surveyed more than 300 engineering students from beginning to end of their undergraduate educations—once every spring during a period lasting from freshman year until 18 months after graduation. Cech also followed up post-graduation with a smaller sample of students who had landed engineering jobs.
Engineering students who participated in the survey attended four U.S. universities: an elite, private technical school; a large, public, land-grant university; an engineering-only college, and a women-only liberal arts college. But the general trend of apathy toward social issues held up across all the universities' engineering programs.
Most students also reported that their engineering programs underemphasized "ethical and/or social issues," "policy implications of engineering," "broad education in humanities and social sciences," and "writing skills." The women-only liberal arts college performed the best on these measures, especially compared to the elite, private technical school. Yet even the liberal-arts college's significantly greater emphasis on such values did not stave off the apathy trend.
The study did not compare the attitudes of engineering students with those of the non-engineering students in the general college population. That means it's tough to tell if the increase in apathy reflects an engineering-specific issue or a broader issue among all college students. Still, Cech thinks the study results imply room for improvement in engineering education either way.
"One possibility is just a general development of cynicism of young adults," Cech explained. "However, if engineering education is serious about producing students who express concern for public welfare, then the fact that engineering education does not appear to counteract the development of such cynicism is similarly problematic."
So what can engineering educators do about all this? Cech says reformers could try tearing down three "ideological pillars" of engineering education: "depoliticization" that considers "non-technical" concerns such as public welfare to be irrelevant to "real" engineering; the cognitive separation of "technical" and "social" competencies that devalues the latter; and a "meritocratic ideology" that automatically assumes social systems are fair and equitable in giving everyone an equal shot at success.
Jeremy Hsu has been working as a science and technology journalist in New York City since 2008. He has written on subjects as diverse as supercomputing and wearable electronics for IEEE Spectrum. When he’s not trying to wrap his head around the latest quantum computing news for Spectrum, he also contributes to a variety of publications such as Scientific American, Discover, Popular Science, and others. He is a graduate of New York University’s Science, Health & Environmental Reporting Program.