By Julia M. Williams
PROFESSORS MUST HELP ENGINEERING
STUDENTS EDUCATE THE PUBLIC-NOT CONDESCEND TO IT.
Why is it so difficult for engineers to engage in a real
dialogue with other members of society about technology?
If one is to accept the stereotypes associated with the engineering
profession, engineers don't provide clear answers to
society's questions about the impact of technology.
Instead, they are evasive or rely on incomprehensible jargon
that increases the distrust between technology's developers
and its users. Engineers are thought to be arrogant and unable
to communicate effectively. They have been accused of assuming
a haughty demeanor with those who have concerns about technology
but don't have the technical background to understand
But making technical information clear to a nontechnical
audience may not be a matter of simply improving the communication
skills of engineers. I believe we must also look closely at
the codes of ethics of the professional engineering organizations
with which we encourage students to identify. Students in
my Technical Communication class are asked to conduct a search
for codes of ethics at the websites of professional organizations
such as ASME, IEEE, and ACM. I ask students to familiarize
themselves with the ethical codes, as well as the professional
expectations, they must abide by in the technical workplace.
In my own review, I have found that these codes may contribute
to an engineer's arrogance toward his or her technical
work. The following examples illustrate the point. ASME code
states that "Engineers uphold and advance the integrity,
honor, and dignity of the engineering profession by: using
their knowledge and skill for the enhancement of human welfare;
being honest and impartial, and serving with fidelity the
public, their employers, and clients..."
Similarly the IEEE Code states, "We, the members of
the IEEE, in recognition of the importance of our technologies
in affecting the quality of life throughout the world, and
in accepting a personal obligation to our profession, its
members, and the communities we serve, do hereby commit ourselves
to the highest ethical and professional conduct..."
If we look carefully at the emphasis in these codes, we can
see that both endorse a kind of technological stewardship,
the idea that engineers are supposed to use their skills in
developing technology to serve communities and enhance human
welfare—noble goals, to be sure. Both codes place engineers
in the role of the technical expert, as they "use their
knowledge and skills" to improve the conditions for
human life. There is, however, the strong implication that
the engineer's expertise places him or her in a trusted
but unassailable position in which the engineer knows best.
The IEEE code even goes so far as to identify the technologies
as "our technologies," owned in a sense by members
of IEEE. Neither code explicitly requires engineers to listen
to their communities or take their concerns into account when
developing technologies. It is not a big leap to turn what
begins in the codes as technological stewardship into a kind
of technological paternalism, an "engineer knows best"
perspective that puts the engineer at odds with society.
Engineers play an important role in our society, creating
new devices and developing new processes that save lives and
improve daily existence. In general, however, engineers are
unprepared to encounter the public in anything but the role
of technical "giver" who must assist the technologically
"needy" and "dumb down" information
to make it marginally understandable. As engineering educators,
I would ask that we consider the problem of the engineer's
relation to society in the broader context of both communication
Julia M. Williams is an associate professor of English
and coordinator of technical communication at the Rose-Hulman
Institute of Technology.