Culture of Disengagement in Engineering Education?

Cech, Erin A.
Science, Technology, & Human Values

Much has been made of the importance of training ethical, socially conscious engineers, but does US engineering education actually encourage neophytes to take seriously their professional responsibility to public welfare? Counter to such ideals of engagement, I argue that students’ interest in public welfare concerns may actually decline over the course of their engineering education. Using unique longitudinal survey data of students at four colleges, this article examines (a) how students’ public welfare beliefs change during their engineering education, (b) whether engineering programs emphasize engagement, and (c) whether these program emphases are related to students’ public welfare beliefs. I track four specific public welfare considerations: the importance to students of professional/ethical responsibilities, understanding the consequences of technology, understanding how people use machines, and social consciousness. Suggesting a culture of disengagement, I find that the cultural emphases of students’ engineering programs are directly related to their public welfare commitments and students’ public welfare concerns decline significantly over the course of their engineering education. However, these findings also suggest that if engineering programs can dismantle the ideological pillars of disengagement in their local climates, they may foster more engaged engineers.