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Today's challenges require a different kind of engineer.

The National Academy of Engineering’s Grand Challenges are striking in that many of them are not just technical but also social and political — for example, to “provide access to clean water” and “prevent nuclear terror.” But dealing with these concerns, dealing with people, in other words, has never been the primary focus of engineering. Witness the fact that only six of 541 people in the current U.S. Congress are engineers.

In the face of current pressing global problems, we need engineers who are as comfortable at the conference table or policy meeting as at the lab bench. But in order to achieve this, we must make engineering school an attractive place for students who are interested in more than just what makes things tick.

One way to think about our students and their education comes from Cambridge University psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen. He has identified two ways to describe some personality differences: “empathizing” and “systemizing.” Empathizing reflects an orientation toward people: understanding the emotions and thoughts of others, and responding accordingly. Systemizing is an orientation toward anything that has inputs and outputs. This includes technical systems (computers, say), abstract systems (mathematics), motoric systems (playing musical instruments), and taxonomies. As Baron-Cohen writes, “Systemizing is our most powerful way of understanding and predicting the law-governed inanimate universe. Empathizing is our most powerful way of understanding and predicting the social world.”

In order to understand these differences, Baron-Cohen’s research group created questionnaires to measure the Empathy Quotient (EQ) and the Systemization Quotient (SQ). Individuals with higher SQ scores than EQ scores are described as “systemizers,” and the converse as “empathizers” Individuals with similar EQ and SQ scores are described as “balanced.” You can find out your own scores and orientation at

To get more balanced graduates, admissions criteria and curricula have to change.

It’s not a big stretch to guess that many engineers and engineering students tend toward high SQs. (Note that this test measures orientation towards system, not ability). And we normally admit students into engineering on the basis of their math and science grades and standardized test scores, which all but guarantees that they will have high SQs. In addition, traditional engineering curricula, with their emphasis on individual work like exams and problem sets, have little to offer students who might be more oriented toward people. Yet, since we are starting to recognize that good engineers need to be oriented toward both systemizing and empathizing, shouldn’t we be trying to make engineering education attractive to students with high EQs as well?

I would argue that we need to take a hard look at the engineering school culture and our admissions criteria, then think about to whom we appeal and whom we are recruiting to be the engineers of tomorrow — and what needs to change. Surely, we need to place increasing emphasis on teamwork, leadership, and communication — all facets of the engineering skills set that draw on an orientation toward people. And we might begin looking at more than just math grades. At the Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering, where I teach, part of the admissions process involves observing how prospective students work with peers to discuss and present a challenging topic. It gives us a glimpse of how they will interact with future teammates, and it gives them a taste of what to expect at the school.

Engineering schools have made a good start by incorporating more group and project work into the curricula. But we should expand opportunities for students to work with non-engineers, whether through service learning or interdisciplinary projects with students in other programs.

Engineering will always need and attract systemizers. But if we want to get balanced engineers, we need to start by balancing our curricula.

Debbie Chachra is an assistant professor of materials science at the Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering.




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