As a student unsure of what chemical engineers actually did in the real world, I wondered whether I would like being a chemical engineer. A double major, I reasoned, would provide a safety net — just in case.
Students in the engineering and public policy (EPP) department worked on projects at the intersection of technology and society, like energy, the environment, and risk analysis. Those sounded interesting, so I enrolled in the ChE/EPP double-major program. Electives on topics such as energy policy, organizational behavior, social analysis, and arms control and defense policy, and projects on product liability, diagnostic radiation, and coal mine safety, gave me an appreciation for the interdependence of engineering and the public welfare.
Unfortunately, many of today’s engineering students may lack this appreciation. Erin A. Cech, an assistant professor in the Dept. of Sociology at Rice Univ., surveyed students about the importance of their ethical responsibilities, their interest in understanding the consequences of technology, and whether they factor public welfare considerations into their professional identities. She found that when it comes to issues of public welfare, the engineering education system appears to foster a “culture of disengagement” among students.
Furthermore, she believes that this culture of disengagement may be a profession-wide phenomenon. She points out that this attitude frames the day-to-day activities of problem definition and solution, guiding how engineers produce, conceptualize, talk about, and evaluate their work — what puzzles they consider important, which solutions they consider desirable, and the methods by which they design and test their innovations.
This is most evident in the process of problem definition, Cech says, where engineers decide what considerations are integral to their design responsibilities for a particular technological puzzle and what concerns they deem beyond the scope of those responsibilities. In this process, disengagement may lead to engineering problem definitions that exclude consideration of the public welfare — for example, concerns about social justice, inequality of access, the spread of risk and benefit, and issues of privacy, monitoring, and control.
Fortunately, not all engineers and engineering students have fallen prey to the disengagement mindset. The Washington Internships for Students of Engineering (WISE) program (of which AIChE is a sponsor) selects undergraduate engineering students to conduct research on public policy issues in Washington, DC. The students learn about the interactions between the engineering community and the government and see how engineers can contribute to decision-making on complex technological matters. The interns present the results of their work on Capitol Hill, and their papers are published online in the WISE Journal of Engineering and Public Policy (www.wiseintern.org/journal).
In an August 2013 AIChE Journal Perspective paper, Bill Banholzer and Mark Jones call on chemical engineers to do a better job of participating in the discussions about how society’s grand challenges are addressed. Richard Graven’s letter in this issue (p. 4) is part of the dialog generated by that paper. Banholzer will continue the dialog on March 31 when he kicks off the Spring Meeting (see preview, pp. 16–18) with his keynote address, “Possible vs. Practical: Engineers Must Lead the Development of Practical Technologies.”
The WISE interns are developing the skills to take on this leadership role.
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