In my personal experience, undergraduate engineering at the institution where I earned my Bachelor’s was presented to the students to fulfill one key purpose: money. On one of the first days of my undergraduate studies, my Intro to Engineering professor said to us: “There is only one reason to pursue a career in Engineering: money. If you’re here for any reason other than to put some porkchops in the freezer, then you’re lying to yourself.” He asked students who disagreed to tell him why they thought they were in engineering and several of us said things like “I want to help people, I want to make a difference,” but each supposedly naive response was met with laughter, and frankly, a little mockery. This experience was so bizarre and to this day, I am so puzzled about what has happened in this man’s career that makes him think it was appropriate or productive or accurate to tell young, eager engineering students this. Fortunately, he was the only person I encountered in my studies who made such proclamations with such careless abandon, but the idea that money was our key driver in studying engineering was constantly present.
I found this lurking idea to be extremely damaging. It’s a large part of the reason I considered dropping out of engineering on several occasions: I wasn’t convinced I was doing something meaningful with my studies. How am I supposed to stay motivated for 4+ years of education, not to mention the rest of my life, simply for a nice paycheck? Sure, that paycheck can be a great motivator, but can’t I do something meaningful too? I think this idea that money is king led to a really poor quality of engagement on the part of myself and my peers in many of my classes. Who cares if you understand or care about the material as long as you learn just enough to get that degree and pass those liscensure tests?
This need for purpose is really well illustrated in Dan Pink’s video RSA Animate – Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us. Purpose is so important for meaningful learning and career satisfaction. He talks about how there are 3 key things that govern our motivation: autonomy, mastery, and purpose. He talks about how it can be beneficial for companies to have some sort of “transcendent purpose” for a number of reasons: it makes coming to work more enjoyable, it can prevent ethical issues from occurring, encourage better service and product development and so on. This makes a lot of sense in the context of education as well and I think in particular is a key part of STEM education that is often lacking.