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Fourth-Year Engineering Students' Descriptions of the Importance of Improving Society Through their Engineering Careers

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2017 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Columbus, Ohio

Publication Date

June 24, 2017

Start Date

June 24, 2017

End Date

June 28, 2017

Conference Session

Professional Development and Lifelong Learning

Tagged Division

Liberal Education/Engineering & Society

Tagged Topic


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Paper Authors


Greg Rulifson P.E. Colorado School of Mines Orcid 16x16

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Greg currently teaches sustainable community development in Humanitarian Engineering at CSM. He earned his bachelor's degree in Civil Engineering with a minor in Global Poverty and Practice from UC Berkeley where he acquired a passion for using engineering to facilitate developing communities’ capacity for success. He earned his master's degree in Structural Engineering and Risk Analysis from Stanford University. His PhD research at CU Boulder focused on how student's connections of social responsibility and engineering change throughout college as well as how engineering service is valued in employment and supported in the workplace.

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Angela R. Bielefeldt University of Colorado, Boulder

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Angela Bielefeldt is a professor at the University of Colorado Boulder in the Department of Civil, Environmental, and Architectural Engineering (CEAE), where she serves as the ABET assessment coordinator. She is the faculty director of the Sustainable By Design Residential Academic Program, a living-learning community where interdisciplinary students learn about and practice sustainability. Bielefeldt is also a licensed P.E. Her research interests in engineering education include service-learning, sustainable engineering, social responsibility, ethics, and diversity.

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As engineering students graduate and enter the workforce, they gain significant responsibility for individuals and society through their future decisions. Problematically, multiple recent studies have shown that over their time in college, students tend to become more disengaged from the impact of their work and their feelings of social responsibility decrease. The question explored in this research was to determine the extent that fourth year engineering students discuss helping others and society through their careers as an aspect of an ideal job or an aspect that would make their work rewarding. Hour-long, semi-structured interviews were conducted with twenty engineering undergraduate students near the end of their fourth year of college. These students were attending five different universities and pursuing six different majors (primarily mechanical and civil engineering). Student responses, while unique to their personal situation, fell into four categories regarding their visions for a future ideal engineering career: (A) helping people and society was the most important component to their future engineering career; (B) helping people and improving society was listed as a component to their ideal career; (C) after being asked what would be rewarding, the student mentioned having a positive impact on society or people, or that their work would naturally help society because that is inherent in engineering; and (D) helping people or improving society was not mentioned as part of their ideal career or an aspect that would be rewarding in their work as an engineer. Students in group A through C described that they would try to work on projects that improved the environment, local communities, and society at large. Group D students would not be looking for a particular engineering job that would help people and did not seem to be concerned with the impact of their job. They prioritized interesting work, location, and sometimes salary over the degree to which their work would help society overall. No obvious differences were evident in the institutions or majors of the students who clustered into the different response categories, but internships and general confidence in their engineering abilities did seem to have an influence. The paper will finally offer an analysis of possible reasons for these outcomes, and how faculty and the engineering profession more broadly can improve graduating engineers’ perceptions of and goals for their future careers.

Rulifson, G., & Bielefeldt, A. R. (2017, June), Fourth-Year Engineering Students' Descriptions of the Importance of Improving Society Through their Engineering Careers Paper presented at 2017 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Columbus, Ohio. 10.18260/1-2--28384

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