systems are fair and just—the people who
have the most talent and drive succeed and
those that don’t have such drive and talent
don’t. People who hold the meritocratic
ideology blame individuals for their own
social disadvantages rather than the broader
system. Such a belief makes conversations
about public welfare seem illegitimate, especially within engineering contexts. If poverty
is the fault of the poor, then should engineers
be involved in doing anything about it?
These three ideologies are beliefs that
are salient in engineering more broadly and
permeate engineering education as well.
Students learn these ideologies and learn
to identify with them through the process
of becoming engineers.
PE: What’s the solution?
Because this is not an issue of a few bad
engineering education programs but a
broader cultural issue, it becomes difficult
to have a silver-bullet solution.
There needs to be more integration of
public welfare concerns into traditional
engineering content. [One possibility is
to] add questions related to public welfare
into homework assignments and tests.
Students’ demonstration of [reflection]
and knowledge on these issues becomes
part of what’s graded. This would help to
make these issues legitimate topics within
engineering education and give students
practice at developing skills to think criti-
cally about them.
When I was an engineering student, I
would sometimes use things I was learning
about in my sociology classes, such as
issues of access and equality, to ask questions in my engineering classes. Such
questions were seen by my professor and
classmates as really odd.
But those are the kinds of concerns that
engineers actually have to deal with when
they go into the workforce. Being an engineer in the real world doesn’t involve the
kind of sanitized questions that students
get in homework assignments and exams.
They have to face the complexities of the
real world when they graduate.
I’m not arguing for a weaker engineering
or something less pure, but training engineering students to be better prepared to go
into the workforce where they have to deal
with public welfare complexities all the time.
PE: Are there next steps
with this research?
An important next step is to not only see if
these processes are in play in a wider sample
of engineering programs but also what
might be effective in trying to undermine
these patterns, and to look at the pedagog-
ical implications of increased engagement.
I’d also be interested in the extent to which
public welfare [outlooks] change the longer
people are in the workforce.
This is the first study of its kind. It’s
meant to be a starting point for further
research. Because of the sample size, it
can’t be the final word, but it is a way to
start the conversation.
I would reiterate, I’m not looking to
deconstruct engineering or engineering
education. I don’t have a personal vendetta.
I’m interested in producing better engineers,
engineers that are equipped to go out into
the world and have the intellectual tools
necessary to do the work they are faced with.
PE: What are the implications
if this isn’t addressed?
To give you an example, I was having a
conversation with a computer scientist, a
graduate student at a different university. He
and his colleagues in the lab were designing
facial recognition software that could be used
by autistic children to learn what emotions
were expressed through facial movements.
He was telling me that a group of high
school students from a lower-income school
were touring the lab. Several couldn’t get
the tool to work. One said, “It doesn’t work
on black people.” He was right. All the
people in the lab were white. No one had
thought to try it on someone whose skin
pigmentation wasn’t like theirs.
That kind of thinking not only potentially produces technology that can exclude
whole parts of the population, but it’s also
bad engineering. It doesn’t do what it’s
supposed to do. By bringing in thoughts
about public welfare concerns and the
effects of technologies on people, it opens
up a whole other set of considerations that
can make technologies better.
Cech’s paper “Culture of Disengagement in
Engineering Education?” appeared in the
January 2014 issue of the journal Science,
Technology, and Human Values.