4.4 Societal issues and attitudes

A comment: Many of the students in your class have different political, religious, cultural and ethical views from you, and also different attitudes to engineering and study.

We can look at the various societal pressures on the engineering curriculum and on engineering programmes in several ways. I will divide these into three categories: Students’ views on the society around them; Their views on the society they plan to enter, and; Their views on the nature of university study.

Society around us:

We cannot, and should not, ignore the reality that we live in a world containing war, famine, environmental damage, nuclear power, weapons of mass destruction, religions and climate change. Each of these may have an influence on the content of an engineering curriculum and the attitudes of the staff designing programmes and the students studying them. Depending on our society’s ethical standpoint, and the expectations of its people, these influences may be very varied. We must also recognise the technological and social changes (I almost wrote ‘advances’ but thought better of it) relating to communication and travel – the internet, web 2.0, ubiquitous computing, intercontinental travel and the rapid integration of all of these. Finally, knowledge increases exponentially[1], forcing us to make choices about what is important and what is worth learning. At the level of individual undergraduate programmes we must, at least annually, consider what are the most timely and contemporary examples of engineering with which to illustrate our chosen content and make its societal context relevant to our students. At the same time we have to consider what new material to include and therefore what existing material to omit. Additionally we have to consider the teaching and learning methodologies which best encourage student learning. Usually very little of this gets done in the rushed ‘annual programme review’ which most universities insist on, although there should be more time for it in 5-yearly accreditation visits or major programme reviews..

The society which graduates plan to enter:

Students – soon to be graduates – have widely different views on their future role in society, on the key issues in their home country – especially if it is in the less-developed world – and on their future career (or careers). This perspective will influence their ‘take’ on the programme you offer and their demands of you. Your possible response is not clear. The best advice is probably to use a wide range of example applications in your classes, although you probably believe that the fundamental engineering principles remain the same in any societal setting. You should be aware, however, that a western, developed world, approach to education is not universally accepted. During a project intended to make educational resources openly and freely available in the UK but therefore implicitly across the world, we were told that intellectuals in Pakistan were describing our ‘open’ approach – which was intended to be helpful – as educational imperialism. By making western-style support materials available to all we were in effect imposing our attitudes to engineering and to study itself on societies who could not afford their own alternative. I find this sad, but I simply report what we encountered.

Students’ views on university study:

Now that the study of engineering at university is a mass-market activity we must expect to find a wide range of attitudes among our students. Among the issues which permit different attitudes to be taken are the following.

Competition among students or student teams both within the curriculum and outside it. Individual students may be comfortable with a different balance between competition as a stimulus to study and performance (our team’s car is going to beat your team’s car) and competitive pressures on resources or opportunities to be ‘top’. You will meet, if you have not met them yet, students who resent having their marks (but perhaps not their performance) dragged down by weaker or slower students. I have had to discipline students who cut pages out of library books, both in order to take the material away for their own study and in order to deny other students access to it. I have even heard of (and I don’t think the story is apocryphal) law students who would not agree to peer mark each others’ work because a weaker student might learn something from their own efforts, in a field where the few top jobs with the best employing companies will go to those graduating with the best degrees. Thankfully I have never encountered this in engineering.

Most engineering students will find themselves studying among a mixture of home and overseas students. We might take the firm view that a UK university offers an experience designed to have a special UK flavour, but with many international links, so that its graduates are employable widely across the world. What then is the best balance of international students and home students?  Is this different at School or programme level and within a student group or team? Is it different from the perspective of a ‘home’ student and an ‘international’ student? Is the balance which would deliver the optimum internationalised degree different from the balance any particular student might like? Are there students within your class who come from nations or ethnic groups which are currently at war, or occupied?  These issues may directly affect your teaching.

Read on …  (but first please add a comment)

[1] Actually, I’m not sure that knowledge does increase exponentially, because it has to be discovered by people, and the population is not rising exponentially  (or at least soon will not). Perhaps it rises more than rectilinearly! On the other hand if you believe Brynjolfsson and McAfee in The Second Machine Age, our rate of production of ideas depends on the number of interactions between people, so will rise factorially.


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