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Trained To Disengage? A Longitudinal Study Of Social Consciousness And Public Engagement Among Engineering Students

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2010 Annual Conference & Exposition


Louisville, Kentucky

Publication Date

June 20, 2010

Start Date

June 20, 2010

End Date

June 23, 2010



Conference Session

Normative Commitments and Public Engagement in Engineering

Tagged Division

Liberal Education

Page Count


Page Numbers

15.1274.1 - 15.1274.16



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Paper Authors

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Erin Cech University of California, San Diego

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NOTE: The first page of text has been automatically extracted and included below in lieu of an abstract

Trained to Disengage? A Longitudinal Study of Social Consciousness and Public Engagement among Engineering Students


Much has been made of the importance of training ethical, socially conscious engineers, but is engineering education actually succeeding in this task? Does the professional socialization of engineering students train them to take seriously their professional responsibility to public welfare? This paper examines this vital question by systematically testing whether programs successfully emphasize ethical, engaged engineering practice to their students, and whether such programmatic emphasis actually cultivates in students a sense of social consciousness and a belief in the importance of their professional engagement in public welfare. This paper utilizes unique quantitative longitudinal panel data which follow cohorts of engineering students at four diverse institutions (MIT, UMass, Smith and Olin) for four years. In order to determine if professional socialization cultivates engaged and socially conscious engineers, I analyze (a) whether engineering programs actually emphasize ethical engagement in issues of public welfare, (b) whether students’ social consciousness and belief in the importance of public engagement increase over the course of their college careers, and (c) whether programmatic emphasis is causally related to these changes. The results suggest there is much work to be done: Not only do programs lack an emphasis on ethical engagement, this lack of emphasis is causally related to a reduction in students’ social consciousness and their belief in the importance of public engagement over the course of their college careers. The silver lining to this story is that professional socialization does appear to be effective at changing students’ beliefs. If programs are able to increase their emphasis on ethical engagement, this research suggests that engineering programs have the capacity to produce more publically engaged, socially conscious engineers.

I. Introduction

Professional occupations like engineering have a special responsibility to the public they serve.i Professions have a virtual monopoly on entire areas of social life, allowed to define and construct particular areas of social reality.1, 2, 3, 4, 5 Because of their unparalleled influence in the complex technical systems pervading post-industrial society, engineering professionals are obligated to engage in work that serves the public good and to engage with issues of public welfare when such issues come into contact with their professional domain.4 Professionals acknowledge the societal obligations bestowed upon them by learning and following formal and informal codes of ethical practice.6 A responsibility for taking public welfare into account as they practice engineering is central to the professional duties of the engineer: “Engineers hold paramount the safety, health and welfare of the public in the performance of their professional duties...should engineers' professional judgment be overruled under circumstances where the safety, health and welfare of the public are endangered, the engineer shall inform their clients or employers of the possible consequences and notify other proper authority of the situation.” 7

Learning the ethical practices and behaviors of the engineering profession, and the weightiness of the responsibilities therein, is a fundamental component of engineering education. This training is integral to professional socialization, the process by which professional skills and


Cech, E. (2010, June), Trained To Disengage? A Longitudinal Study Of Social Consciousness And Public Engagement Among Engineering Students Paper presented at 2010 Annual Conference & Exposition, Louisville, Kentucky. 10.18260/1-2--15717

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