profession and the larger social world. As
I moved into research and as a sociologist, I noticed a lot of talk within the engineering education community and those
who study [it] about the need to develop
more well-rounded, socially conscious engineers. There have even been changes to
engineering accreditation toward this end.
There is an increasing agreement among
engineering educators and the engineering
community at large that engineers need to
have a broader knowledge base than just
math and science skills.
In light of this, the research question I
asked was, do engineering students actually
graduate more concerned with public welfare
issues than when they entered [school]?
PE: Can you elaborate on
what you found?
I looked at four different indicators of public
welfare concerns: the importance to them of
their professional and ethical responsibili-
ties, of understanding the consequences of
technology, of understanding how people
use machines—and their broad social
consciousness. I asked the set of questions
when they came in as freshmen and then
later on in their engineering education—
their third or fourth year—and then a third
time, for those that went into engineering
jobs, 18 months after graduation.
What I found, on all of these measures, is
that their public welfare concerns declined
significantly from the time they entered as
freshman to the later time points.
PE: Were you surprised
by the results?
I was surprised by the extent of the decline
and the across the board nature of the
decline. Based on literature and some prior
research, it didn’t seem outside the realm
of possibility. I expected the beliefs might
remain stagnant, but the decline was kind
PE: Can you elaborate
on possible causes?
This is not a case of cold-hearted people
within the engineering profession. What I
think is going on is a broader issue of what
is valued within the culture of engineering
broadly and in engineering education
in particular. There are three ideological
pillars that help uphold this culture of
The first I call depoliticization, or the
belief that issues of culture and politics not
only can be separated from more technical
work but should be. Depoliticization tends
to bracket discussions of public welfare and
social issues from engineering classrooms.
[Students are] assigned problems to solve
with little or no engagement with broader
contextual concerns. These issues are often
[pushed] into engineering ethics classes
that might meet once a week for a semester.
The second pillar is the technical-social
dualism, the idea that technical skills and
social skills are separate and mutually
exclusive. The technical skills are far more
valued than social skills like communication
and writing, but both are, of course, vital
for success as an engineer.
The third pillar is the meritocratic
ideology, a popular belief in engineering, and
in society more broadly, that advancement
public welfare, according to a new study.
Erin Cech, an assistant professor of
sociology at Rice University, surveyed
more than 300 engineering students at four
institutions (which are unnamed for confidentiality purposes): a large state school,
an elite tech school, a private liberal arts
college, and an engineering-only college.
Across the board, the results held—and
they have attracted attention.
Cech discussed her work with PE.
PE: Can you provide some
background on why you
wanted to do this study?
As a double major in electrical engineering
and sociology, I was always interested in
the interplay between the engineering
Does Engineering School Lower Student
Concern for Public Welfare?
Time 1 (1st year) Time 2 (3rd or 4th year) Time 3 (Post-Graduation), among
Engineering Students who Enter
Public Welfare Beliefs
0.25 0.50 0.75 –0.25
NEUTRAL VERY UNIMPORTANT VERY IMPORTANT
Consequences of Technology
Understanding How People Use Machines