Inside Higher Ed recently took note of research by Erin Cech, an assistant professor of sociology at Rice University, who found that engineering students leave college less concerned about public welfare than when they started.  According to the article, her research was based on surveys of students at four engineering colleges.
Instead of trying to counter the survey data that led Professor Cech to conclude engineering education makes students cynical, I would instead like to highlight some of the motivations and actions of engineers and engineering students and then consider whether these indicate a desire to improve the human condition.
Lafayette College hosts a Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) summer camp for elementary school students. At the camp last summer, I was asked by a camper to explain what engineers do. Engineering covers such as vast array of applications and technologies that summarizing the whole of engineering to a group of 10-year-olds in a sentence or two was a challenge. I’ve heard it said that engineers are “problem solvers” but that description seems a bit vacuous. Medical doctors are problem solvers, but they’re not engineers. The description of an engineer as a “problem solver” is, at the very least, incomplete. I needed to think of something better for the camper, but I’ll get back to that later.
Let’s dig a bit deeper and look at the motivation for engineering problem solving. Why do engineers develop things like smartphones, medical devices, and (my favorite on this frigid winter day) central heating? The cynical answer here would be the money. Engineers do have relatively high compensation rates compared to many liberal arts degree recipients and they have excellent job prospects. However, it is not money that motivates students to become engineers. The high salary may initially attract students to the programs, in a similar way that high salaries attract people to become medical doctors, but the hope of future earnings does not drag students into a lab at 2 a.m. to complete an analysis. Passion does.
Data support the premise that engineering students want to have a positive impact and improve the human condition. Over the past decade, enrollment in undergraduate engineering programs  across the United States has increased by nearly 25 percent. Over this same period, environmental engineering enrollment has grown nationally by over 75 percent and biomedical engineering has grown by an astonishing 170 percent. The very nature of these degree programs is to help people and the environment. This provides direct evidence that engineering students are deeply committed to using their talents to improve people’s lives. More traditional engineering disciplines have also grown in numbers partly due to employment prospects, but also because prospective students see engineering as a way to simultaneously have a financially rewarding career while bettering the world.
Students who pursue engineering careers want to combine their math and science skills with their creative abilities in what is called engineering design. Although the engineering design process is taught at every engineering school, there is no single agreed upon “best” design process. Just like different companies have different design principles and practices, faculty and engineering programs have different variations of the design process as well. That said, engineering design always starts off with the same first step; recognizing a need. Engineers, at their core, are trying to make things more efficient, easier to use, and more effective.
One of the most progressive engineering design processes, made popular by Stanford University’s Design Institute, is called Design Thinking. An early step in Design Thinking is to empathize with the client. Whether an engineer is developing a prosthetic leg to enable an amputee to walk, a process to produce a drug to lower cholesterol, or a bridge to better connect people’s lives, engineers are empathizing with the condition of those impacted by their design.
One can gain insight into the values embraced by the field of engineering by looking at its professional organizations. In addition to the traditional ones founded to improve safety and reliability of engineered systems, organizations such as Engineers Without Borders, Engineering World Health, and the National Academy of Engineering’s Grand Challenges were formed in the last 25 years to make a positive impact on the human condition. Recently a new type of organization was created called Engineering for Change. This community brings together the combined talents of engineers, social scientists, NGOs, local governments, and community advocates to improve the quality of life in communities around the world by promoting the development of affordable and sustainable solutions to the most pressing humanitarian challenges. These types of service organizations are thriving at engineering schools across the country with broad participation from students who are doing impactful work to help people live happier and healthier lives.
Engineers are optimists who believe that they can design and create solutions to help solve the problems facing society. This brings me back to the response I gave the camper who wanted to know what engineers do. “Engineers make people’s lives better through the use of technology,” I told her.
There is nothing cynical about that.
Scott R. Hummel is the William Jeffers Director of the Engineering Division at Lafayette College.