Understanding Relevance

By Sarah N.

“Social change” is not a phrase that usually comes up in engineering classes. Engineers are supposed to care about numbers, programming, and making things faster, stronger, and better – right? Well after this semester I can definitively say engineers need to be considering much more. Specifically, we need to be consistently conscious about all of the consequences of our work. Engineering, beyond the mechanics of what we do, revolves around design decisions and trade offs. Size, cost, efficiency, and accessibility are often inversely related, and these trade off decisions all have major repercussions. I did not realize it before, but all of the complex choices and design considerations come down to one concept – values. In fact, values are at the heart of engineering, philanthropy, and social change. Values motivate what we think, say, and do. They direct our time, resources, and pursuits. Even though we did not formally have a lesson about values until the end of the semester, I am now able to see that they played in integral role in every aspect of the class.

Throughout the semester, we had the pleasure of hearing from engineers from various academic backgrounds and industries. Despite the wide range of their experiences, studies, and interests, without fail values came up in every single lecture. One of the major areas covered by our guest lecturers was the future of engineering and how technology will change our daily lives. The ideas of automation and smart devices and machines were not new – but taking a careful look at their cultural, economic, and social implications was new. What will determine if these predictions come to be true? The values of those creating the future. If we care the most about efficiency, speed, and precision, then machines will likely out-perform people. However, if we care more about creativity, community, and tradition, many of these predications will not come true. Yes, technology sets limits on what is possible. But it is incredibly important to understand that the people behind this technology are driven, both consciously and subconsciously, by their values. Sustainability was another reoccurring engineering theme that relies on values. It was clear from our class discussion that our opinions on sustainability stemmed from the root questions “What matters?” and more importantly, “Why does it matter?” Again, these came down to personal ideals. When we had our formal discussion on values and ethics, the pieces of the class came together. Not only did I realize the common theme of the engineering talks, but I also saw the fundamental role values play in the grant process and in philanthropy as a whole.

I had never been on this side of the grant allocation process before. I have applied for cooperate and private grants, but this was my first time being a part of awarding a grant. From day one, we discussed and explored what was important to us through theme papers, lightning round sharing, and debates. From what we would focus on to how we made decisions, our values governed the entire journey. This class is unique because we had a lot of freedom. In general, engineering classes do not allow for much creativity because there is so much technical content to get through. The skills we learn enable us to innovate, but the classes themselves are often prescribed lesson by lesson. By putting authority in the hands of the students, we had the honor and responsibly of thinking for ourselves and asking hard questions. After college, engineers will have to know and act upon values, and this course was an excellent opportunity to practice.

Finally, what exactly is the role of engineering in social change? In a phrase – the commitment to thoughtful, responsible choices. We must carefully pick our values and understand the values of the other stake holders. Similarly we are tasked with understanding the implications of our actions, both good and bad. Time and time again this semester we saw the impact of unexpected consequences. Therefore, as engineers we must accept our inherent role in social change and act appropriately. I hope that more engineering students are exposed to these lessons and experiences – they are an imperative part of training ethical, dependable engineers.

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