What do you think the word “Engineering” means? In the first term of our engineering degree, we have an “Introduction to [insert discipline here] Engineering” course for our particular disciplines, and often they define “Engineering” using the Professional Engineers of Ontario definition:
- any act of planning, designing, composing, evaluating, advising, reporting, directing or supervising (or the managing of any such act);
- that requires the application of engineering principles; and
- concerns the safeguarding of life, health, property, economic interests, the public welfare or the environment, or the managing of any such act.
This sounds quite altruistic and humanitarian, right? But it turns out engineering does not have quite as altruistic of a history. The word itself stems from meaning someone who constructs “engines” in the sense of military siege engines. Only later in history, when building societal infrastructure grew into its own field was “civil” used to tell the difference between military and non-military projects.
That’s not the only tie engineering has to militarism. Many developed countries (Germany, the United Kingdom, Russia, and the United States) in the 19th & 20th centuries had substantial portions of their economy centred on arms development and exportation, which encompasses the engineering design, manufacturing, assembly, and everything in between. Moreover, military spending provided the effective foundation for the US’s economy during World War II and the Cold War. As reinvigorating as this was for the US, the benefits of this growth were far from evenly distributed. Executives in large corporations or generals back home reaped much larger profits than the workers or soldiers. Sure, engineering as a profession helped America rebound from the Great Depression, but it contributed both to destruction abroad and (arguably) a greater disparity in quality of life between the upper and lower classes.
What’s more, is how a traditional engineering role within an organization typically functions like a soldier within an army. A hardware engineer who designs a chip (that’s a subcomponent within a larger electronic product) generally works within their engineering sub-team to optimize that circuit to the given requirements. But are they involved in the big decisions regarding what the product will do, and for whom? Often the answer is no, especially within a large organization. This may seem inconsequential if that product is a phone, but what if it’s a weapon—and you don’t know that? How would you feel? The quintessential example of this is the Manhattan Project, where members were forbidden from discussing their work with others. Furthermore those who learned of the project’s goal and chose to resign were prohibited from explaining their reason to colleagues. We can be compartmentalized in our work, doing only very specific tasks, working with primarily other engineers, and without an active understanding of how our actions are impacting society.
This can be concerning, especially when you think about how this working environment so closely resembles our degree. Throughout our program we only get five curricular opportunities—our Complimentary Studies Electives—to work outside our “engineering sub-team” (or cohort) and with non-engineering programs. As well, if you look at our courses, the Engineer’s role and its impact on society are fractions of our education compared to our technical training. Starting to sound like a soldier yet?
To be clear, I’m not at all bashing the way engineering programs are structured. I also understand that plenty of exceptions exist to the above. But just as technology is ever-evolving, I do believe that engineering education needs to keep up with the times. Especially, because the diversity of roles the engineers of tomorrow will take requires more interdisciplinary work than ever before.
So, what can we do to graduate as engineers who can work productively with non-engineers, distance ourselves from soldier-like practices to actively care about our work’s impact, and make positive differences in society? How can we become engineers that are more in line with PEO’s definition?
Critique our work in a broader scope (technologically, societally, environmentally). This means when working on a project, developing a heuristic to actively inquire about the work’s impact, stakeholders, currency, and communication. The Engineering Change Lab, an organization founded to help the engineering community keep up with societal paradigm shifts, has their “Principles of Technological Stewardship for the Engineering Community” as a great reference for what questions to ask.
Get involved in extracurriculars. From Conrad Grebel’s Centre for Peace Advancement, to being the birthplace of Engineers Without Borders, the Kitchener-Waterloo community has no shortage of ways to check off our three objectives! EWB is a great club to flex those engineering muscles towards outreach, helping impoverished communities, and everything in between. The Centre has a “Tech for Good Organizations” directory with organizations that actively harness engineering to improve the human condition (and that offer ways for students to get involved). At the bare-minimum, join a student club that lets you work with non-STEM programs to see the unique, invaluable insight they can offer to problem solving. These also let you polish up that resume—we know how challenging finding co-ops can be, after all 😊.
Put what we learned into practice in the workplace. Co-operative work terms are a huge part of our degree, and we know some skills are best acquired when the theory is put into practice (after all, our degree is a Bachelor of Applied Science). Question your choice of co-op terms (e.g. does this company create something that does more harm than good? Does it have Defence contracts and if so, what kinds of contracts are these?). Find opportunities to ask relevant questions seen in the Principles of Technological Stewardship page seen earlier.
Our degrees are busy enough with 5-7 courses each semester and 20-40 hours of class a week, I totally get that. But if we want to become engineers who can thrive in a team regardless of the members’ educational backgrounds, who consciously strive to make a positive impact on society, and who are thus indispensable to our organizations, it will warrant getting involved in endeavours outside the classroom. Let’s strive to make engineering a profession that’s more closely associated to its PEO definition than its historic military ties. So, carve out some time in your calendar, whether it’s an hour a day or a month, and get involved in making your community a better place.
- Chafe, William H. (2010). The Unfinished Journey: America Since World War II, 7th ed. New York: Oxford University Press.
- D. Nieusma and E. Blue, “Engineering and War,” International Journal of Engineering, Social Justice, and Peace, vol. 1, no. 1, pp. 50–62, May 2012, doi: 10.24908/ijesjp.v1i1.3519.
- E. Finn, Jason Scott Robert, D. H. Guston, and Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, Frankenstein: Annotated for Scientists, Engineers, and Creators of All Kinds. MIT Press, 2021.