Teaching Engineering As A Social Science

Below is a piece written by Edward Wenk, Jr., which originally appeared in PRlSM, the magazine for the American Society for Engineering Education (Publication Volume 6. No. 4. December 1996.)

While I think that there’s much more than what Wenk points to as ‘social science’ – I agree wholeheartedly with his ideas. I might even say that he didn’t go far enough in his recommendations.

Enjoy. 🙂

 

Edward Wenk, Jr.

Teaching Engineering as a Social Science

Today’s public engages in a love affair with technology, yet it consistently ignores the engineering at technology’s core. This paradox is reinforced by the relatively few engineers in leadership positions. Corporations, which used to have many engineers on their boards of directors, today are composed mainly of M.B.A.s and lawyers. Few engineers hold public office or even run for office. Engineers seldom break into headlines except when serious accidents are attributed to faulty design.

While there are many theories on this lack of visibility, from inadequate public relations to inadequate public schools, we may have overlooked the real problem: Perhaps people aren’t looking at engineers because engineers aren’t looking at people.

If engineering is to be practiced as a profession, and not just a technical craft, engineers must learn to harmonize natural sciences with human values and social organization. To do this we must begin to look at engineering as a social science and to teach, practice, and present engineering in this context.

To many in the profession, looking at teaching engineering as a social science is anathema. But consider the multiple and profound connections of engineering to people.

Technology in Everyday Life

The work of engineers touches almost everyone every day through food production, housing, transportation, communications, military security, energy supply, water supply, waste disposal, environmental management, health care, even education and entertainment. Technology is more than hardware and silicon chips.

In propelling change and altering our belief systems and culture, technology has joined religion, tradition, and family in the scope of its influence. Its enhancements of human muscle and human mind are self-evident. But technology is also a social amplifier. It stretches the range, volume, and speed of communications. It inflates appetites for consumer goods and creature comforts. It tends to concentrate wealth and power, and to increase the disparity of rich and poor. In the com- petition for scarce resources, it breeds conflicts.

In social psychological terms, it alters our perceptions of space. Events anywhere on the globe now have immediate repercussions everywhere, with a portfolio of tragedies that ignite feelings of helplessness. Technology has also skewed our perception of time, nourishing a desire for speed and instant gratification and ignoring longer-term impacts.

Engineering and Government

All technologies generate unintended consequences. Many are dangerous enough to life, health, property, and environment that the public has demanded protection by the government.

Although legitimate debates erupt on the size of government, its cardinal role is demonstrated in an election year when every faction seeks control. No wonder vested interests lobby aggressively and make political campaign contributions.

Whatever that struggle, engineers have generally opted out. Engineers tend to believe that the best government is the least government, which is consistent with goals of economy and efficiency that steer many engineering decisions without regard for social issues and consequences.

Problems at the Undergraduate Level

By both inclination and preparation, many engineers approach the real world as though it were uninhabited. Undergraduates who choose an engineering career often see it as escape from blue- collar family legacies by obtaining the social prestige that comes with belonging to a profession. Others love machines. Few, however, are attracted to engineering because of an interest in people or a commitment to public service. On the contrary, most are uncomfortable with the ambiguities human behavior, its absence of predictable cause and effect, its lack of control, and with the demands for direct encounters with the public.

Part of this discomfort originates in engineering departments, which are often isolated from arts, humanities, and social sciences classrooms by campus geography as well as by disparate bodies of scholarly knowledge and cultures. Although most engineering departments require students to take some nontechnical courses, students often select these on the basis of hearsay, academic ease, or course instruction, not in terms of preparation for life or for citizenship.

Faculty attitudes don’t help. Many faculty members enter teaching immediately after obtaining their doctorates, their intellect sharply honed by a research specialty. Then they continue in that groove because of standard academic reward systems for tenure and promotion. Many never enter a professional practice that entails the human equation.

We can’t expect instant changes in engineering education. A start, however, would be to recognize that engineering is more than manipulation of intricate signs and symbols. The social context is not someone else’s business. Adopting this mindset requires a change in attitudes. Consider these axioms:

  • Technology is not just hardware; it is a social process.
  • All technologies generate side effects that engineers should try to anticipate and to protect against.
  • The most strenuous challenge lies in synthesis of technical, social, economic, environmental, political, and legal processes.
  • For engineers to fulfill a noblesse oblige to society, the objectivity must not be defined by conditions of employment, as, for example, in dealing with tradeoffs by an employer of safety for cost.

In a complex, interdependent, and sometimes chaotic world, engineering practice must continue to excel in problem solving and creative synthesis. But today we should also emphasize social responsibility and commitment to social progress. With so many initiatives having potentially unintended consequences, engineers need to examine how to serve as counselors to the public in answering questions of “What if?” They would thus add sensitive, future-oriented guidance to the extraordinary power of technology to serve important social purposes.

In academic preparation, most engineering students miss exposure to the principles of social and economic justice and human rights, and to the importance of biological, emotional, and spiritual needs. They miss Shakespeare’s illumination of human nature – the lust for power and wealth and its corrosive effects on the psyche, and the role of character in shaping ethics that influence professional practice. And they miss models of moral vision to face future temptations.

Engineering’s social detachment is also marked by a lack of teaching about the safety margins that accommodate uncertainties in engineering theories, design assumptions, product use and abuse, and so on. These safety margins shape practice with social responsibility to minimize potential harm to people or property. Our students can learn important lessons from the history of safety margins, especially of failures, yet most use safety protocols without knowledge of that history and without an understanding of risk and its abatement. Can we expect a railroad systems designer obsessed with safety signals to understand that sleep deprivation is even more likely to cause accidents? No, not if the systems designer lacks knowledge of this relatively common problem.

Safety margins are a protection against some unintended consequences. Unless engineers appreciate human participation in technology and the role of human character in performance, they are unable to deal with demons that undermine the intended benefits.

Case Studies in Socio-Technology

Working for the legislative and executive branches of US. government since the 1950s, I have had a ringside seat from which to view many of the events and trends that come from the connections between engineering and people. Following are a few of those cases.

Submarine Design

The first nuclear submarine, USS Nautilus, was taken on its deep submergence trial February 28, I955. The subs’ power plant had been successfully tested in a full-scale mock-up and in a shallow dive, but the hull had not been subject to the intense hydrostatic pressure at operating depth. The hull was unprecedented in diameter, in materials, and in special joints connecting cylinders of different diameter. Although it was designed with complex shell theory and confirmed by laboratory tests of scale models, proof of performance was still necessary at sea.

During the trial, the sub was taken stepwise to its operating depth while evaluating strains. I had been responsible for the design equations, for the model tests, and for supervising the test at sea, so it was gratifying to find the hull performed as predicted.

While the nuclear power plant and novel hull were significant engineering achievements, the most important development occurred much earlier on the floor of the US. Congress. That was where the concept of nuclear propulsion was sold to a Congressional committee by Admiral Hyman Rickover, an electrical engineer. Previously rejected by a conservative Navy, passage of the proposal took an electrical engineer who understood how Constitutional power was shared and how to exercise the right of petition. By this initiative, Rickover opened the door to civilian nuclear power that accounts for 20 percent of our electrical generation, perhaps 50 percent in France. If he had failed, and if the Nautilus pressure hull had failed, nuclear power would have been set back by a decade.

Space Telecommunications

Immediately after the 1957 Soviet surprise of Sputnik, engineers and scientists recognized that global orbits required all nations to reserve special radio channels for telecommunications with spacecraft. Implementation required the sanctity of a treaty, preparation of which demanded more than the talents of radio specialists; it engaged politicians, space lawyers, and foreign policy analysts. As science and technology advisor to Congress, I evaluated the treaty draft for technical validity and for consistency with U.S. foreign policy.

The treaty recognized that the airwaves were a common property resource, and that the virtuosity of communications engineering was limited without an administrative protocol to safeguard integrity of transmissions. This case demonstrated that all technological systems have three major components — hardware or communications equipment; software or operating instructions (in terms of frequency assignments); and peopleware, the organizations that write and implement the instructions.

National Policy for the Oceans

Another case concerned a national priority to explore the oceans and to identify U.S. rights and responsibilities in the exploitation and conservation of ocean resources. This issue, surfacing in 1966, was driven by new technological capabilities for fishing, offshore oil development, mining of mineral nodules on the ocean floor, and maritime shipment of oil in supertankers that if spilled could contaminate valuable inshore waters. Also at issue was the safety of those who sailed and fished.

This issue had a significant history. During the late 1950s, the US. Government was downsizing oceanographic research that initially had been sponsored during World War II. This was done without strong objection, partly because marine issues lacked coherent policy or high-level policy leadership and strong constituent advocacy.

Oceanographers, however, wanting to sustain levels of research funding, prompted a study by the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), Using the reports findings, which documented the importance of oceanographic research, NAS lobbied Congress with great success, triggering a flurry of bills dramatized by such titles as “National Oceanographic Program.”

But what was overlooked was the ultimate purpose of such research to serve human needs and wants, to synchronize independent activities of major agencies, to encourage public/private partnerships, and to provide political leadership. During the 1960s, in the role of Congressional advisor, I proposed a broad “strategy and coordination machinery” centered in the Office of the President, the nation’s systems manager. The result was the Marine Resources and Engineering Development Act, passed by Congress and signed into law by President Johnson in 1966.

The shift in bill title reveals the transformation from ocean sciences to socially relevant technology, with engineering playing a key role. The legislation thus embraced the potential of marine resources and the steps for both development and protection. By emphasizing policy, ocean activities were elevated to a higher national priority.

Exxon Valdez

Just after midnight on March 24, 1989, the tanker Exxon Valdez, loaded with 50 million gallons of Alaska crude oil, fetched up on Bligh Reef in Prince William Sound and spilled its guts. For five hours, oil surged from the torn bottom at an incredible rate of 1,000 gallons per second. Attention quickly focused on the enormity of environmental damage and on blunders of the ship operators. The captain had a history of alcohol abuse, but was in his cabin at impact. There was much finger- pointing as people questioned how the accident could happen during a routine run on a clear night. Answers were sought by the National Transportation Safety Board and by a state of Alaska commission to which I was appointed. That blame game still continues in the courts.

The commission was instructed to clarify what happened, why, and how to keep it from happening again. But even the commission was not immune to the political blame game. While I wanted to look beyond the ship’s bridge and search for other, perhaps more systemic problems, the commission chair blocked me from raising those issues. Despite my repeated requests for time at the regularly scheduled sessions, I was not allowed to speak. The chair, a former official having tanker safety responsibilities in Alaska, had a different agenda and would only let the commission focus largely on cleanup rather than prevention. Fortunately, I did get to have my say by signing up as a witness and using that forum to express my views and concerns.

The Exxon Valdez proved to be an archetype of avoidable risk. Whatever the weakness in the engineered hardware, the accident was largely due to internal cultures of large corporations obsessed with the bottom line and determined to get their way, a U.S. Coast Guard vulnerable to political tampering and unable to realize its own ethic, a shipping system infected with a virus of tradition, and a cast of characters lulled into complacency that defeated efforts at prevention.

Lessons

These examples of technological delivery systems have unexpected commonalities. Space telecommunications and sea preservation and exploitation were well beyond the purview of just those engineers and scientists working on the projects; they involved national policy and required interaction between engineers, scientists, users, and policymakers. The Exxon Valdez disaster showed what happens when these groups do not work together. No matter how conscientious a ship designer is about safety, it is necessary to anticipate the weaknesses of fallibility and
the darker side of self-centered, short-term ambition.

Recommendations

Many will argue that the engineering curriculum is so overloaded that the only source of socio- technical enrichment is a fifth year. Assuming that step is unrealistic, what can we do?

  • The hodge podge of nonengineering courses could be structured to provide an integrated foundation in liberal arts.
  • Teaching at the upper division could be problem- rather than discipline-oriented, with examples from practice that integrate nontechnical parameters.
  • Teaching could employ the case method often used in law, architecture, and business.
  • Students could be encouraged to learn about the world around them by reading good newspapers and nonengineering journals.
  • Engineering students could be encouraged to join such extracurricular activities as debating or political clubs that engage students from across the campus.

As we strengthen engineering’s potential to contribute to society, we can market this attribute to women and minority students who often seek socially minded careers and believe that engineering is exclusively a technical pursuit.

For practitioners of the future, something radically new needs to be offered in schools of engineering. Otherwise, engineers will continue to be left out.

I like making things go! At the moment, I am Etsy's CTO and I just recently finished my master's degree in Human Factors and Systems Safety at Lund University.

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