Reading Dr. Henry’s article this week about medical students losing their empathy struck a chord with me. I vividly remember the night last semester during the small group I lead with my church when one of the medical students spoke up with a prayer request. He was on his ob-gyn rotation and had just that day had to tell a family that their baby no longer had a heartbeat. As he broke down, he told us that he didn’t want to lose this empathy – the sense of why he was doing what he was doing and the purpose behind it.
When I think about engineering, I try to think about it in the same way. Engineering is a profoundly human profession, even though our engineering curricula may not reflect it. Everything we do — the time spent on our research work, the projects we bid for, the designs we produce — has a purpose. However, often when you ask students why they want to be engineers, you hear “because I’m good at science and math” or “because I want to make a lot of money”. This effect is compounded during undergraduate education, where courses that incorporate the humanities like engineering ethics often aren’t required classes for students. I know when I was doing my BS, the closest we got to a discussion of ethics was talking about professional engineering licensure and the danger of putting your Professional Engineer (PE) stamp on a drawing that you hadn’t checked (not even because someone might die but because you might lose your license)! I’m having a hard time remembering and discussion of how the application of design principles might affect communities or how to make a hard cost-benefit decision when one comes up.
Palmer’s essay was especially meaningful to me, especially having taken Engineering Ethics and the Public last semester (Fall 2018). As I think about that class and compare it to Palmer’s essay I can’t help but think about the example of the resident that couldn’t listen to all of her patients and caused one of them to die. I was reminded of our discussions in Engineering Ethics of the importance of engineers valuing non-scientific experiences (like that of citizens in Flint, Michigan who knew something was wrong with their water but didn’t know how to prove it) and remembering the people for whom you are working instead of a nameless and faceless entity. This class also really encouraged a deep reflection of recognizing our responsibility for our work and grappling with the idea that “knowing is not enough”. In our class, we had to write a “story of self” where we examined our own lives and values and the point at which we are willing to confront inhumanities instead of staying silent.
I believe that as we prepare the engineers of the future, we as educators must, as Palmer said, “insist that knowing is not enough, that we are not fully human until we recognize what we know and take responsibility for it.” We need to confront students with ethical dilemmas and encourage them to think now about how they will react, instead of throwing students into dilemmas without preparation and hoping they don’t feel “overwhelmed” enough to do the right thing. Engineers need a sense of empathy – to remember that we are serving in a helping profession. We need to learn how to listen and how to respond, not just how to design the most effective piece of technology. To accomplish this, we need some humility — we need to value the input of those in other fields who are practicing this better than we are. It’s only through empathy, listening, and humility that we’ll be able to train engineers for the new profession, not just the old one.