Home » Contemporary Pedagogy » Did Engineers Even Have Empathy in the First Place?

Did Engineers Even Have Empathy in the First Place?

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 thinkĀ 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.

14 Responses so far.

  1. Cindy Klimaitis says:

    Love your post. I think all undergrads need some type of course in ethics and human relationships. Without that, all the knowledge in the world for any given field is not worth it. I also loved the Palmer quote about taking responsibility for what we know. The citizens in Flint, Michigan could definitely have benefitted from somebody taking a stand based on what they knew. Many great points in your blog!

    • mgbullar says:

      Absolutely agree with you here, Cindy! We have to ask students at all levels to grapple with themselves and decide how they’ll respond to an ethical dilemma before it happens. Without that foundation in ethical intent, it’s easy to get swept away by what’s easy or convenient (or cost-effective), even though that decision might have some harmful ramifications.

  2. timstelter says:

    After reading Dr. Henry’s article on empathy for medical students in residency I believe I felt a similar chord stuck. To often various disciplined engineers have forgotten that schematics, structures, software, etc. are going to be used by someone else. During the training to become an engineer it is often filled with work demonstrating your proficiency in the area — yet it lacks the human component and usually focused more on saving your own ass. Often words like “client” or “product owner” are used for someone to remain accountable to when developing the product. But it goes beyond these characters and we need to remember that. To some degree, the recent Boeing airplane incident is a case example of this. The failure was software and hardware — and as a computer scientist I can’t rightfully know what truly happened without knowing the details but a breakdown process is a likely culprit. And I just hope it wasn’t someone who turned a blinds eye because of a mundane reason (or a serious one). Of course this viewpoint should be taken with a grain of salt.

    • mgbullar says:

      Tim, great point. My fiance sent me an article about the Boeing accident and it seems like it was a software problem that came out of a hardware problem. The new engines that they added are larger (because apparently larger engines means more efficiency) but the engines were too close to the ground so they moved them forward. Moving the engines forward then causes excessive lift when a lot of thrust is applied, which can cause the plane to stall. The software was developed to help counteract that effect, but it seems like the effect should have never been allowed into the design in the first place. Great ethical questions here:
      1. Is it worth the cost savings to not re-certify the plane and retrain pilots because it’s “just another 737”, even though the design significantly changed? The recertification process is long and expensive — if everything had worked out, we wouldn’t have minded if Boeing had cut corners.
      2. How much risk are we willing to take on? Dynamically unstable airframes have been made before, its part of having modern systems that allow us to control for that. What is the balance of designing software to correct for that and just not pushing those boundaries?

      Love to hear more thoughts on this.


  3. bpsutliff says:

    I am proud to say that I took ethics in my undergrad and during my MS. They really do help you think about how your actions affect others in a way that many people don’t. A lot of people feel they already know everything an ethics class can teach them, and they are usually the ones who need that teaching the most. It becomes really important to drive home those practical implications. I think students like us, who make the connection between our actions and people’s lives, are more likely to care about and potentially enjoy our work. We are more likely to keep people safe, more likely to train people with passion, and more likely to convince others to do their very best. Putting this thinking into a course, ethics or other, can be really helpful to connect things like homeworks to the greater goals of their education.

  4. glupton says:

    Hi Meredith,
    Thanks for your post. Really interesting observations on the need for empathy. I whole-heartedly agree with your thoughts on the need for empathy, because it is a very human expression that we are often taught to suppress. The other side of that is that high-levels of empathy are exhausting for many people. If we really engage in empathy in our work (which we should) we are going to limit the outcome we can produce as workers (and that should be OK). This means that we need to have strong supports in place to take care of ourselves. We don’t do that well. We are more isolated relationally than at any point in history. We work ridiculous hours for the purpose of “keeping up with the Joneses.” We need to realign the way we function in order to maintain empathy. Self-care allows us to care for others. Thanks for the great post,

    • mgbullar says:

      Gary — so true! We definitely need to be mindful of how our empathy is affecting ourselves. Self-care, community, and rest are all important to maintaining a healthy work-life balance and being able to truly be effective in our career.

  5. Ray Thomas says:

    I think across the board, even in the humanities, empathy is generally lacking. There are always pushes by various factions or groups to present “pure” or “objective” approaches to practices without looking at the real world impacts. It is one thing to teach about the need for debate and engagement in democracy, for instance, but another thing to remember that human beings are out there in the real world and practices doesn’t always follow theory. I think this is something that everyone in higher education needs to remember, particularly as even teaching at universities has become secondary to research and grant procurement. WE need to remember that humans exist in the system and have a variety of different needs!

    • mgbullar says:

      Yes! Our fields don’t exist in a vacuum. The “pure” approach often overlooks the consequences or the human impacts. In both research and teaching, remembering the “WHY” is so important.

  6. arash says:

    Catchy post title ! In my department they have been working on this ethics in comouter science course that I am hoping will grow to become a core course in the grad CS curriculum. It’s fascinating to watch the topics in this course evolve as new technologies foreshadow scarier ethical issues eveyday. Great post Meredith!

    • mgbullar says:

      This course sounds really interesting! Thanks for sharing! I think there’s room in every engineering department for a course like that, considering the impact that our work has on human wellbeing, health, and safety.

  7. Jon LLoyd says:

    Long live the New Engineering! Optimistic to hear, well, read, you bring more humility and humanity to the discipline!

  8. John says:

    Meredith, I found your post interesting. I too read Dr. Henry’s article but I had a different view. The problem is that doctors and engineers are focusing on the trees instead of seeing the whole forest. The “devil is in the details” is a common expression that I hear in the engineering field. I agree that engineers need to focus on the greater good of society as they are looking at the forest but most projects are focusing on putting up that new bridge or how to build that widget. The problem is not the engineer looking at the trees. It is the client who is paying that engineer that needs to understand the forest that he looking at.

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