Far before I ever stepped foot into a CU engineering classroom, I swore off the idea of ever working for an oil company. I’ve always been a staunch environmentalist and from that perspective, fewer industries can be blamed for the earth’s environmental collapse than oil companies. Fast forward to me in my second year, sitting in class, doing balancing calculations for a system running oil through it, considering a career in similar processes, shortly realizing that would mean a career in the oil industry. Shocked that I had lost sight of the context in which we were learning this process, I was disappointed in myself that I got lost in the numbers so quickly. If it did not take longer than a full two years for me to notice a shift in my moral perspective, this raises the question as to whether this is a common experience, and if so, why? Engineering programs have an obligation to provide students with both technical and ethical knowledge throughout their education. Both are fundamental to acting within the professional engineering world, and yet, ethics are shoved off to the side, deemed “too subjective” or “unimportant” when compared to the technical courses considered higher priority. The extremely limited technical scope through which engineering programs are built, along with the institutional facade of political neutrality, do an immense disservice to both the future engineers in it and subsequently the entire world.
The Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET) awards accreditation to programs with student outcomes desired among engineering professionals, including, “an ability to apply engineering . . . with consideration of public health, safety, and welfare,” and “an ability to recognize ethical and professional responsibilities in engineering situations . . . which must consider the impact of engineering solutions in global, economic, environmental, and societal contexts”. 1 ABET accredited university engineering programs have the obligation to produce engineers with a vested interest in improving the public welfare and have the ability to consider their engineering within broad societal contexts. The very first tenet of the National Society of Professional Engineers’ (NSPE) code of ethics is that engineers shall, “Hold paramount the safety, health, and welfare of the public”. 4 One would hope that engineers in these programs are recipients of robust ethical education, as that is necessary for adhering to these high ethical expectations, yet this couldn’t be further from the truth.
While engineering programs are arming their students with a tremendous amount of valuable technical knowledge, this comes at the cost of their societal awareness. This, in turn, prevents ethical thinking in the field. One who has never attempted engineering school likely would not understand the ferocity and speed with which the programs become highly specialized and what this means for students. Often, students who may have originally held strong beliefs about engineers’ role in society and strong ethical boundaries become swept up in the technical focus and almost entirely drop their ethical priorities. Erin Cech, an Associate Professor of Sociology and Mechanical Engineering at the University of Michigan, has dubbed this specific phenomenon a “culture of disengagement”. 2 In her study of a large group of engineering undergraduates from four different universities, Cech found that, “Students’ experiences over the course of their undergraduate programs decreases their interest in the public welfare considerations of engineering work.” 2 These results were corroborated by increased values of public welfare and of understanding the consequences of technology within cultures that emphasized the policy and societal implications of the engineering within them (Cech 2013). Between the findings from Cech’s study and the demonstrated standards for professional engineers and engineering programs, there is a stark and concerning disconnect between the ethical values graduating engineers actually possess and the ethical values expected of them.
Universities argue they are providing students with necessary ethics courses to build those expected values, and yet, the culture perpetuated among engineering students ensures these attempts at cultivating ethical awareness fail. A study conducted through surveys, interviews, and focus groups of engineering students from a technical course on the applications of military technology gave some insight as to what hurdles students face in the pursuit of increasing ethical awareness. 7 The first problem researchers encountered was that students mischaracterized pragmatism and efficiency as the social impacts of engineering, stating “Though students were readily able to discuss the technical and pragmatic mission given to the engineering profession, which is both vital and necessary, they struggled to derive the larger ethical concerns surrounding them”. 7 Despite the fact that human beings are not born with a value system that innately devalues ethics in exchange for utility and pragmatism, Lim et al. writes, “Many students did not consider the social relevance of the course content knowledge an important or even appropriate topic for discussion in the course. They contended that the curriculum should continue to focus on “the technical side” (Focus Group 6, 2017) while avoiding all value-related topics”. 7 Engineering students, themselves, have accepted and normalized the perspective that the technical coursework in their programs is of the utmost importance, while classes focused on humanities or ethics are less important, ultimately irrelevant to the grand scheme of their degree. I pose that this idea is easily thwarted when we analyze what has actually happened when engineers deeply commit to this principle in their careers.
History proves relevant in assessing what happens when engineers focus solely on doing their technical work over all else. Nazis at death camps, which were distinct from concentration camps in that their sole goal was immediate extermination, were able to murder millions of Jewish people despite only operating for a few years. In his paper, “The Nazi Engineers: Reflections on Technological Ethics in Hell”, Erik Katz (2010) of the new Jersey Institute of Technology explains that without a robust team of engineers and other technical professionals, this would not have been possible. 6 Albert Speer was one of the top architects to Hitler during WWII, securing a position as the Armaments Minister of the Nazi regime by the time he was done. 6 Katz specifically notes that,“As an architect, Speer is a technological professional, similar to an engineer, and thus he provides a useful case for the study of Nazi technological ethics,” and that his memoir is a very valuable resource for understanding the recipe responsible for engineers building literal death factories, seemingly unbothered by the consequences of their actions. In his memoir, Speer explained that he intentionally put highly technical individuals in charge of teams due to them being, “without scruple in their activities,” and Katz expands on this idea, writing, “It is not just Speer the architect who is unconcerned with political and moral values; all technological professionals, embedded in a world of neutral technological artifacts, are blind to the normative dimensions of their work and their products,”.6 After much analysis on the Nazis who hid behind technological neutrality, Katz concludes, “To live and work as ethical engineers, my students must be aware of the political and social goals that are served by their technological products. I can thus claim that if we remain in the thrall of the traditional view that the design and creation of technology is ethically neutral, then we will be repeating the mistakes of the Nazi engineers,”. 6 Cech stated that one of the primary reasons for the culture of disengagement within engineering education is a false belief that technology is politically and ethically neutral 2, a philosophy that enabled many Nazi engineers to absolve themselves of guilt during and after the horrors of the Holocaust.
If engineering is inherently political in its implications, it is unacceptable for the institutions educating future engineers to entirely neglect that sphere of the profession. Scholars all over the world are now advocating for the “whole” engineer, one who is not only versed in the technical aspects of the career, but is also able to interact with the public in a clear manner, debate the values behind engineering topics, and assess the impact of their work in a larger, global context. As technology increases in complexity, so too must engineers in the scope of their roles and responsibilities. De Graff and Ravesteijn (2001) state, “A new kind of engineer is needed, an engineer with a solid foundation in basic sciences and construction technology, who on top of that is fully aware of what is going on in society and who has the skills to deal with those societal aspects.” 5 Unfortunately, engineering culture has an elitism problem propagating the idea that anything non-technical in nature is inherently inferior to the required technical coursework. Byron Newberry, an Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering at Baylor, notes that while students in his engineering class are very capable and adept at applying existing ethical frameworks to contemporary issues, their emotional engagement with the material is simply leagues behind their intellectual engagement. When the class had discussions on ethics, students appeared enthusiastic and engaged, but rated that portion of the class the lowest after the semester. 9 He argues that this is not necessarily due to anything outright stated by the university, but rather that, “ the role of an organizational or institutional environment in shaping an individual’s values resides . . . in the underlying ethos, whether expressed or tacit, that permeates the environment, infusing it with a sense of which things are of ultimate importance”. 9 Newberry continues to explain that it takes one glance at almost any engineering curriculum to see exactly what is of said “ultimate importance:” technical education. Universities have made it very clear that anything not pertaining to specific, technical coursework comes secondary, and it leaves a lasting value system within the students of the institution. This puts universities in a difficult position, as solving the ethics deficit among its students is not as simple as requiring a course, but instead, requires an entire culture shift as well.
A culture that does not seek to intentionally affirm the importance of ethics among its students is stating the opposite by omission. The faculty of a program will define its culture by virtue of being its foundation, and many are simply not equipped to treat ethics with the approach necessary to invoke passion for it within their students. In regard to this idea, Newberry writes, “Current engineering faculty members are products of the admittedly ethics deficient undergraduate engineering educational system of past years, but also of the completely ethics-devoid graduate engineering educational system.” 9 Many times, instructors in charge of highly technical classes simply do not have the skills or background to infuse their lessons with ethics properly, leading them to either omit the conversation entirely or treat ethics almost in a corny fashion, which worsens students’ experience with the topic. A study analyzing lectures, notes, interviews, and other materials from a first year engineering class in Sweden determined that, “both instructors and students constructed ethics as not really actionable in the profession. Engineers should do what they are told to do: complete the projects they are given even if they do not think that doing so is ethically defensible” (Lönngren 2020). 8 Lönngren concludes in her paper that her study indicated that regardless of student and faculty interest in ethics as a topic, education on the matter may be rendered ineffective due to decades of unintentional framing that ethics is largely unimportant in the curriculum. At this point, we have come full circle and the issue of why ethics are undervalued in engineering programs becomes a chicken verses egg first debate, which is not helpful for solving the issue. Rather than assign blame and chastise the institutions that allowed ethics to become unimportant, it is more constructive to consider possible solutions.
The image of a “good engineer” has been one who is level-headed at all times, rational in the highest regard, and almost machine-like in their problem solving capabilities. This stereotype needs to die, and from its ashes a new one must be reborn: the emotional engineer. Sabine Roeser in “Emotional Engineers: Towards Morally Responsible Design” (2010), states, “Moral emotions make engineers sensitive to moral issues arising from the technologies they develop . . . They help us transcend a detached, abstract attitude that could lead to indifference to morally problematic aspects of technologies,” arguing that emotions are fundamental for helping engineers steer clear of a problem I defined earlier: detachment from the societal implications of their work. 10 De Graaff and Ravesteijn (2014) deem emotional intelligence, courage, and even one’s ability to sympathize with others as fundamental tools in the future engineer’s kit. 5 Scholars also emphasize the importance of acknowledging the inherent politics of participating in engineering, with Cech (2013) outright stating that one of the three causes of the culture of disengagement we see among engineers is, “the ideology of depoliticization . . . the belief that engineering work can and should be disconnected from ‘social’ and ‘political’ concerns because such considerations may bias otherwise ‘pure’ engineering practice.” 2 In a different article by Cech from the same year, she states, “depoliticization allows engineers to carry on with their socially important work (e.g. food and medicine production) without having to grapple with the messiness that comes with actually engaging with questions of the effects of engineering work on society”. 3 The current culture among engineering undergrads, graduate students, instructors, and industry professionals alike, needs to be done away with in order to foster new values that allow space for emotions within the field and respect the inherent politics of the job.
For anyone paying attention, the results from Erin Cech’s study are alarming, and rightfully so. On a grand scale, academic institutions are tasked with the responsibility of creating a foundation for our future, and on a smaller one, are paid hundreds of thousands of dollars by their students with the expectation that they provide a solid education in return. Currently, they are not upholding their end of the literal and symbolic transactions they are a part of. ABET accredited programs are taught with the goals of creating engineers who are not only able to assess the broader context in which they are conducting engineering, but also diligently care about the broader context. Cech (2013) demonstrates that not only are engineering programs not furthering their pupils’ ability to do these fundamental things, but they actively decrease students’ interests in the matter altogether. 2 Organizations responsible for establishing codes of ethics for engineering also agree that the most important ethical responsibility of an engineer is to prioritize and seek to improve society’s health and welfare. If universities truly value their obligation to provide engineering students with the education they need to meet these criteria in the professional world, radical change is in order. However, before specific solutions can be proposed, it is crucial that institutions internalize that their underlying cultures are to blame for students’ emotional disengagement with the topic of ethics (Newberry 2004). 9 Until universities take an active role in shifting engineering culture away from its current staples: technical superiority, feigned political neutrality, and the complete erasure of human emotions within the field, they are, at best, complacent in the ethical failings of the profession as whole.
- ABET. (2019, November). 2020-2021 Criteria for Accrediting Engineering Programs.
- Cech, E. A. (2013a). Culture of Disengagement in Engineering Education? Science, Technology, & Human Values, 39(1), 42–72.
- Cech, E. A. (2013b). The (Mis)Framing of Social Justice: Why Ideologies of Depoliticization and Meritocracy Hinder Engineers’Ability to Think About Social Injustices. Philosophy of Engineering and Technology, 67–84.
- Code of Ethics | National Society of Professional Engineers. (2019).
- de Graaff, E., & Ravesteijn, W. (2001). Training complete engineers: Global enterprise and engineering education. European Journal of Engineering Education, 26(4), 419–427.
- Katz, E. (2010). The Nazi Engineers: Reflections on Technological Ethics in Hell. Science and Engineering Ethics, 17(3), 571–582.
- Lim, J. H., Hunt, B. D., Findlater, N., Tkacik, P. T., & Dahlberg, J. L. (2021). “In Our Own Little World”: Invisibility of the Social and Ethical Dimension of Engineering Among Undergraduate Students. Science and Engineering Ethics, 27(6).
- Lönngren, J. (2020). Exploring the discursive construction of ethics in an introductory engineering course. Journal of Engineering Education, 110(1), 44–69.
- Newberry, B. (2004). The dilemma of ethics in engineering education. Science and Engineering Ethics, 10(2), 343–351.
- Roeser, S. (2010). Emotional Engineers: Toward Morally Responsible Design. Science and Engineering Ethics, 18(1), 103–115.