Citation: Sharon Beder, 'Towards a More Representative Engineering Education', International Journal of Applied Engineering Education, vol. 5, no. 2, 1989, pp173-182.

This is a final version submitted for publication. Minor editorial changes may have subsequently been made.

Sharon Beder's Other Publications

Engineering educators have, in the past, shrugged off too easily any blame for the abysmally low numbers of women students going through their schools. The fact that girls often do not choose mathematics and science at school and then later do not choose to do engineering suggests that the key decisions are made before entry into tertiary education and seemingly absolves engineering schools from any part in the process. This simplistic view, however, neglects the role which these schools play in perpetuating a false image of engineering which is unattractive to many girls.

The image of engineering which engineering schools convey is of a field of endeavour that is overwhelmingly concerned with numbers and mathematical analysis. If one studies the course content of most Australian engineering degree courses, one finds an obsession with the technical, the mathematical and the scientific and an almost complete neglect of the social, political and environmental issues (not to mention the managerial and industrial relations aspects) that shape engineering practice in the real world. Where such issues creep into the courses they are usually treated as secondary and even unimportant considerations.

The image of engineering as a purely technical activity is reinforced by the engineering community who are always striving to improve the status of their profession and who seek to increase their influence through emphasising those aspects of technological decisions which they are best educated to deal with. Many engineers feel that too much exposure of the social and political nature of technological decisions will threaten their role as experts and open such decisions up for public scrutiny.

The continued emphasis on the technical and scientific aspects of engineering decision making also suits politicians and bureaucrats. They too prefer to minimise pubic participation in such decisions and to hide the political nature of public decisions concerning technological developments. Moreover, those who can employ the engineers and have best access to scientific and technical information will have the advantage in any technological controversy if the social and political aspects of the controversy are given secondary importance, or better still, if they are unacknowledged.

This determination to portray engineering and technological decision making as purely technical activity not only serves to disenfranchise the public with respect to technological development but also serves to discourage many students from choosing engineering as a career. Often it is students with broader interests, a different range of talents who are put off; those who want to work with people rather than machines and numbers, those who care about social relations. Too often it is the female students who are put off.

Engineering schools play an important role in this because high school students usually have very little grasp of what engineers really do. There is a poor understanding of the nature of engineering work in the community in general and students are forced to make their choice on other criteria from the sort of work they expect to do. An Australian study of over 2000 senior school students found that student knowledge of engineering was poor and that girls were less aware of what engineering entailed than boys. 40.9% of girls and 26.5% of boys could not name a single branch of engineering (e.g. civil engineering, chemical engineering etc). (Dillon, 1983)

Even after they beginning engineering studies, many students do not have much idea of what engineering practice is about. An American researcher noted

As I continued to interview students, it was clear that they were puzzled about what their chosen career would lead them to in the way of work. (Durchholz, 1979, p721)

Given the ignorance amongst students and in the community about what engineering is all about, the content of engineering education provides a window into the profession and shapes perceptions of it. As a result of the largely mathematical, scientific and technical content of the education, engineering is generally seen as a technical career that combines maths and science and offers opportunities for advancement.

The consequently narrow range of people attracted to engineering has resulted in the development of a stereotype of the engineer common to several English speaking nations and elements of this stereotype, which is self- perpetuating in its own way, have been borne out in various studies. Some early surveys found that even as students, engineers had a fairly narrow range of interests and disliked ambiguity, uncertainty and controversy and preferred things to be ordered and precise. They were unlikely to question authority. In particular they were not 'people oriented' and were not interested in the humanities or the social sciences. (Davenport, 1967; Perrucci & Gerstl, 1969; Kirkman, 1973; Hutton & Lawrence, 1981)

Whilst such generalisations are usually of limited use, in the case of engineers, they may be more true than of other professionals because of the narrow base from which engineers are drawn. A research group which analysed a number of studies of engineers noted that the occupation of engineering was made up of a far more homogeneous group of people than most other occupations and that the range of temperamental variation was relatively narrow. (Florman, 1976, 92)

Samuel Florman in his book, "The Existential Pleasures of Engineering" (1976) extols the engineering heros of the past, but then admits,

The unpleasant truth is that today's engineers appear to be a drab lot. It is difficult to think of them as the heirs of the zealous, proud, often cultured, and occasionally eloquent engineers of the profession's Golden Age. (p92)

Florman, an American engineer, blames the fall of the engineer into an insipid reflection of former glory partly on "the stultifying influence of engineering schools where "the least bit of imagination, social concern or cultural interest is snuffed out under a crushing load of purely technical subjects" (p92). But primarily he sees the problem as being the type of young person who chooses to become an engineer. The "typical engineering student is the serious, intelligent, unexciting young person" who tends to be indifferent to human relations, to social sciences, to public affairs, to social amelioration and to cultural subjects.(pp91-2)

Similar observations have been made by others. Lord Snow noted the conservative-mindedness of engineering students in a lecture to engineering institutions in Britain. He argued that such a uniform approach to social problems suggested that either there was too homogeneous an entry into the engineering profession or, alternatively, that engineering education had a rigidifying effect. (Snow, 1973)

The two problems which both Florman and Snow identify, the effect of engineering education and the type of person choosing engineering, are not unrelated. The load of technical subjects that constitute the greater part of so many engineering courses give prospective students an image of engineering which does not represent the profession adequately. This distorted picture of an engineering career, disembodied from any social context, is therefore only attractive to a narrow range of young people who are willing to forsake professional involvement with people, public affairs and a wider set of social concerns.

The resulting narrowness of engineers may be of concern to those within the profession, such as Florman, who have some nostalgic vision of a time when engineers were cultured gentlemen of influence. Of far more importance are the consequences, to a society, of having its technology developed and shaped by people who may lack imagination and creativity and who may prefer not to know much about the wider world of people and consequences.


Science and mathematics training is, of course, essential to an engineering education. The old trial and error design methods of the eighteenth and nineteenth century were gradually replaced by scientific and calculation based methods that were necessary for the more complex nature of modern technology. The need for such analysis was reinforced by the continual striving for economy and minimum material. As Mike Cooley has observed,

design stages involve rarified, complex mathematical procedures which are necessary only because, for commercial reasons, materials have to be exploited to the full. (Cooley, 1980, p80)

However, the heavy emphasis on mathematics and science in engineering courses cannot be accounted for by need alone. Other less obvious objectives are served as well. These revolve around the status of engineering courses within universities and the preservation of professional status.

University education has, in the past, had as much to do with providing credentials and prestige to a fortunate group of young people as it has with equipping students with vocationally relevant skills. In fact education that was vocationally oriented was looked down upon in both Britain and the United States during the nineteenth century. Common people were trained for a specific vocation whilst 'gentlemen' were educated. (Ahlstrom, 1982) Attempts to set up engineering schools offering practical training as opposed to 'education' were unsuccessful. If young people wanted practical training they could get it on the job; they went to school if they wanted the prestige of an education and vocational schools did not offer this.

For thousands of engineers, the route from the shop floor or the building site to the office has been a legitimate and even a favoured method of entry into the profession in England, Australia and the United States. In the nineteenth century, tertiary education for engineers had to compete directly with hands on experience which often seemed to produce more practical engineers. Conflict arose, particularly for mechanical and civil engineers, between older engineers from a "shop culture" or "field culture", who were often the ones in key positions in industry, and the young engineers emerging from colleges with a "school culture". (Calvert, 1967)

Until at least the 1870s colleges and universities provided an education in the classics for children of the elite. Even the new American universities that were set up at the end of the nineteenth century, which offered students a range of courses, including scientific and scholarly subjects, were generally not vocationally oriented, science being viewed as an "intellectual exercise." (Ahlstrom, 1982,88) Such universities primarily provided "status certification". (Collins, 1979)

David Noble tells the story of Ira Remsen, a chemistry teacher at an American college who requested funds for laboratory facilities.

"You will please keep in mind," the school officials admonished him, "that this is a college and not a technical school. The students who come here are not to be trained as chemists or geologists or physicists. They are to be taught the great fundamental truths of all sciences. The object aimed at is culture, not practical knowledge." (Noble, 1977, 24-25)

Scientific education carried a certain amount of prestige because of "a small but prominent and growing profession, that of the scientific researcher" (Collins, 1979, 124) and this prestige had its effect on engineering education. The educators in early engineering schools, operating within universities, were highly conscious of their second-class status and even the newly esteemed scientists looked down upon them. One way of improving status was to increase the scientific content of their courses and thereby "capitalize on the growing respectability of science". (Noble, 1977, p26)

Practicing engineers and professional engineering societies have also seen an emphasis on science as a means of gaining status. Science was gradually becoming part of the identity of the engineer. Engineers were coming to define themselves by their ability to apply scientific laws to achieve their ends.

The cement binding the engineer to his profession was scientific knowledge. All the themes leading towards a closer identification of the engineer with his [sic] profession rested on the assumption that the engineer was an applied scientist. (Layton, 1971, 58)

Engineers considered that they deserved greater social influence because they had assimilated the characteristics of science; the objectivity and logic which uniquely qualified them to be impartial arbiters and managers in human affairs. For a time, they sought to apply the scientific method and natural laws to social matters such as conservation of natural resources and especially the scientific management of workers. (Layton, 1971)

A specialised knowledge base was also sought keenly by engineers as a basis for the claim for professional status. Although most engineers were employed, they believed in a social hierarchy which awarded power and influence to those with knowledge and skill and they sought to be recognised as professionals rather than workers. In particular, civil and mechanical engineers required science as part of their specialised knowledge base so that they would be differentiated from the technicians, mechanics and skilled craftsmen in the occupational hierarchy.

The need for a knowledge base particular to engineering was also manifest in the universities where there were demarcation disputes over the teaching of the theoretical principles of technology and jealousies on the part of science faculties. Engineering educators, such as the Scottish engineer W.J.M. Rankine, sought to create an engineering science that would "transcend the traditional categories of theory and practice" so as not to threaten scientists or compete with on the job engineering training. (Channell, 1982, 45)

For Rankine, a leading figure in the 19th Century development of thermodynamics and applied mechanics, the answer lay in reducing the laws of actions and the properties of materials to a science. This amalgamation of theory and practice allowed a new science to be developed which could be claimed to belong to engineering. (Channell, 1982)

Chemical engineers also faced this demarcation problem in the early part of the nineteenth century in the United States. They did not want to be confused with chemists, particularly analytical chemists, many of whom performed a routine job requiring little skill and attracting little status. At the same time they found themselves competing with mechanical and civil engineers in what they considered to be the chemical engineer's area of expertise; the design, construction and management of chemical plants. (Reynolds, 1986) Chemical engineers, like Rankine, sought a scientific knowledge base that amalgamated theory and practice and they found it in the concept of "unit operations".

Chemical engineering is a science. . . is not a composite of chemistry and mechanical and civil engineering, but a science of itself, the basis of which is those unit operations which in their proper sequence and coordination constitute a chemical process as conducted on the industrial scale. (quoted in Reynolds, 1986, 709)

Unit operations were based on the mechanical operations which occurred in the chemical plant and the machinery involved, not on the chemical reactions or products that the scientist concentrated on.(Reynolds, 1986)

Even the electrical engineering field has been effected by demarcation problems. During World War II it was noted that it was physicists, not engineers, who did most of the electronic engineering to develop radar and associated devices and systems. It was therefore concluded that the electrical engineering syllabus was inadequate and science became more and more central and basic to the curriculum. In the United States new courses in electromagnetic theory, electronics, servo-mechanisms and advanced circuit theory were established at the expense of an emphasis on electric power systems, to enable electrical engineers to be able to serve military needs better in the future. The term 'engineering science' was introduced in 1955 as part of the move to increase the science content of all undergraduate courses. (Barus, 1987)

The scientific approach has, of course, yielded solutions to engineering problems which the old trial and error methods never could but the need to teach science in engineering schools has been grossly inflated by the needs of the engineering profession for esoteric knowledge and of engineering educators for academic respectability. (Noble, 1977) These needs, superimposed over the basic vocational needs of the future engineer, have meant that the curriculum has become grossly overcrowded and dominated by science to the detriment of other subjects.


It is not only the course content which discourages women from doing engineering but also the selection criteria which is used to screen prospective students. The most effective way of preventing large numbers of women from doing engineering that one might think of would be by insisting that only those who did lots of mathematics at high school and did well at it to apply. This is in effect the primary selection mechanisms used by Australian engineering schools.

There is no proven or obvious relationship between ability to do mathematics and science subjects at secondary school and ability to be a good engineer, and no real attempt to demonstrate this relationship. Most engineering educators would agree that high level mathematics and calculus has little relevance to most engineering work. (Collins, 1979; Zussman, 1985; Whalley, 1986) So what is really being selected for?

Science, and mathematics particularly, have in the past and still do represent rationality, objectivity and logic. In eighteenth century France, the emphasis on mathematics in a national plan of education was justified because,

It is very possible and very common to reason badly in theology, in politics; it is impossible in arithmetic and geometry. The rules will supply accuracy and intelligence for those who follow them. (quoted in Hacker, 1983, 42)

Moreover, mathematics, like science, has became a means of differentiating engineers from the tradespeople they worked with. As the numbers of young people seeking engineering careers grew markedly, school mathematics grades became a method of restricting those who were admitted to engineering courses so that the status of the profession could be maintained through smaller numbers and higher entry level requirements. (Hacker, 1983)

The use of mathematics grades in assessing students was part of a wider move to use examinations to replace research projects, reports, displays, and practical work as assessment mechanisms. Examinations seemed to eliminate bias in evaluation and forced students to work. Mathematics exams, in particular, were easy to administer and grade, unlike abilities that involved visualisation, object manipulation or interpersonal skills. (Hacker, 1983)

Mathematics is an important selection criteria in many technological and professional fields. It plays an important role in restricting access to the professions. As the Canadian Professor of Mathematics quoted by Hacker pointed out, a central function of mathematics is the maintenance of social stratification and mathematics more than any other subject restricts the numbers of eligible students. (Hacker, 1983, 38)

The use of mathematics grades, even as a partial selection criteria has an indirect influence on career choice quite apart from the screening function that is sought. The perception of such an obstacle, whether real or imagined, tends to restrict the range of people choosing to study engineering to those who are good at mathematics. A survey of engineering students at an American university found that all students surveyed perceived that competency in mathematics and science was a "filter" that preceded the choice of engineering. But not only did students feel that competency in these subjects was required but also an interest in doing these subjects and a desire to combine them in a career. (Durchholz, 1979)

Australian studies also reveal this perception is important. In 1983 less than 0.5% of Australian professional engineers were women.(Gillin, 1983) At this time interviews with women engineers in Victoria, Australia revealed that all had had a particular interest in mathematics and science subjects at secondary school and had chosen engineering as a way to make use of their mathematics and science skills in a practical way. (Dwyer & Daly, 1983) Another survey of 1277 first year students enrolled in engineering schools in Victoria in 1982 found that an interest in science was even more important for girls than boys in choosing engineering as a career. 35.8% of female students and 22.6% of male students gave as their first reason for choosing to study engineering that they liked science and wanted to apply it to real problems. Moreover 42% of the female students and 29.9% of the male students also considered applied science as an alternative. (Gillen, 1983)

The emphasis on mathematics and science grades helps to keep girls out of engineering. Poor maths grades and the choice of too few maths courses often do not reflect any innate lack of ability but rather are a result of socialisation processes. Various reasons given for weaker performance by girls in mathematics and science include a lack of female role models, less encouragement from teachers than boys get, inadequate facilities in girls schools, less parental concern for achievement and career preparation than boys get, expectations of marriage and family rather than career and the labeling of these subjects as masculine. (Dillon, 1983)

Professor Fennema identifies two variables which are closely related to choosing to study mathematics; confidence and perceptions of usefulness. (Fennema, 1981,10) Confidence is a particularly necessary accompaniment to successful mathematics learning and studies have shown that females have greater anxiety about mathematics than males. This anxiety is largely contributed to by social expectations that females are not good at mathematics and reinforced by the subsequent tendency for girls to blame themselves for failure, for boys to blame others for failure, for girls to attribute success to others and for boys to attribute success to their own abilities. (Fennema, 1981)

The other variable mentioned by Fennema is perceived usefulness of mathematics. Again social expectations mean that girls, and also boys of working class backgrounds, perceive mathematics as not being useful to their future careers or daily lives. The stereotyping of mathematics as a masculine activity, reinforces this tendency for girls as does the very real domination of men, in mathematics based professions.

Science and mathematics are popularly associated with rationality and objectivity and are often perceived as masculine domains, because of traditional notions of masculinity and femininity; the latter supposedly being associated more with emotionality and feelings. Such stereotyped concepts still have an effect on the way in which mathematics and science are portrayed and therefore on the choice of subjects which girls make early in their lives. The domination of the engineering profession by men and the consequent image of engineering as a masculine enterprise is therefore magnified by the use of mathematics and science grades as selection criteria and the scientific emphasis in the curriculum.


Whilst being good at mathematics and science are crucial to obtaining a degree in engineering such qualities have no such inflated value in engineering practice. The continued use of tabulated values and formulae and the increased use of computers mean that few design engineers and even fewer construction and maintenance engineers ever need to go back to first principles to derive the equations they use. Two recent studies, one in Britain and the other in the United States, found that even in a highly specialised, modern engineering firm, "engineering education does not seem to bear any direct relationship to engineering practice" (Zussman, 1985, p62). Even research engineers were not much more dependent on theoretical knowledge than other engineers.

The education in both countries is similar to that in Australia in that there is a core of mathematics and science and a tendency towards specialised education rather than a general education. In the U.S. study engineers interviewed felt that engineering education contributed to logical and systematic thinking and basic skills such as plan reading, concentration and the ability to learn new skills . But they also recognised that other non technical skill such as the ability to work with others could be more important to performance than technical skills, and certainly more important than competency in high level mathematics and science. (Zussman, 1985)

During the 1983 centenary celebrations of Sydney University's engineering faculty, speaker after speaker, each a senior engineer, got up and called for a more general education for engineers. Geoff Cook, managing director and chief executive of John Holland (Holdings) Ltd told the audience that the engineer of tomorrow would have to be more skilled in the social sciences, have a better understanding of the international scene, be more aware of the environmental impacts of their projects and be more effective communicators. (Georg, 1983)

Yet despite the increasing calls for a more general education for engineers, engineering educators seem determined to equip potential engineers with all the specialist knowledge that they might possibly need to know. It is as if they assume that a university undergraduate degree represents the last chance for many engineers to learn anything formally. This attempt to cram all state of the art technical knowledge into a three or four year degree course becomes progressively more difficult as the engineering knowledge base expands and all that is really achieved is an increasing workload for students. It is doubtful that the poor overworked students retain any more after the exam period than they did previously.

The fact that engineering education gives engineers a lot of extraneous knowledge would not matter if it were not for the fact that this load of mathematics and science crowds out other knowledge which might be acquired. In particular, non technical skills are often left out of the curicula of engineering schools, merely because there is not enough room for them. Even for students who get a chance to do humanities or general subjects that are aimed at broadening their thinking, the poor students are so overloaded with other subjects that they do not have the time for the "luxury" of thinking about what they are being taught or following it up.

The problem that a tightly packed syllabus, full of science and maths and specialised technical subjects, left little room for the expansion into broader areas of concern was recognised at the Sydney University centenary conference. One speaker calling for more education in communication skills argued

There should be a broad review of the degree syllabus, not with a view to the further compression into it of 'more of the latest' but rather with a view to stripping out nonessentials to make way and time for the teaching and practice of communication. (quoted in Georg, 1983)

Communication is only one of the skills that employers have recognised to be lacking in engineering graduates. In a recent Australian report on engineering education, it was found that employers felt that engineering schools catered satisfactorily for a knowledge of the basic sciences, skills, knowledge and practice of a particular discipline of engineering studied, laboratory work, engineering design and computing skills. However, they rated Australian engineering schools as being less than adequate in areas concerned with industrial relations and management of people, management of costs and resources, communication skill and "engineering as part of the broader business context". (Jones, 1988)

An engineering education which equipped an engineer with general technical and scientific skills, taught them how to access information and encouraged them to view education as an on-going life-long process (something the Institution of Engineers, Australia has been recently trying to push) would be far more appropriate and would leave the necessary space in the engineering syllabus for the consideration of the equally important non-technical aspects of engineering.

In the British study it was found that most engineering graduates felt that what they had learnt formally could be learnt on the job and even in an R & D department surveyed, only 38% thought a degree was useful to their jobs. Employers in British firms did not rely on qualifications as a measure of potential performance, but rather started all engineers at the bottom of the technical hierarchy and assessed them by their performance. Promotion depended more on the trustworthiness and reliability of an employee than any other factor, including mathematical ability. It was found that most engineers had far more knowledge than was required for the job they were doing.(Whalley, 1986)

What is missing in management's eyes is the responsibility to use it [the knowledge] appropriately in a world where technical knowledge is only a small part of the skills necessary to be successful in getting things done. (Whalley, 1986, 59)


Whilst management may be unhappy with the products of engineering schools because of their ineffectiveness in the workplace context, increasingly the public is becoming uncomfortable with the products and services that result. Various qualities have been identified as important to engineering which are not engendered by a wholly technical curriculum, such as judgement, experience and understanding of social complexities, creativity and visual skills. Inevitably this effects the end products.

In the longer run, engineers in charge of projects will lose their flexibility of approach to solving problems as they adhere to the doctrine that every problem must be treated as an exercise in numerical systems analysis. (Ferguson, 1977, 835)

Bruce Seely has also observed that the choice of a scientific methodology is not always the most appropriate means of solving a problem. In his case study of American highway research he observed the increased scientisation of engineering which resulted from an effort to reap the higher status accorded to scientists after World War I. The Bureau of Public Roads aimed for a more scientific approach in order to increase its prestige and concentrated on getting "precise quantitative data and the expression of results in mathematical terms". They also attempted to replace the knowledge they had gained through experience, observation and empirical methods with a more theoretical understanding of road construction. Seely concluded from his study that the embracing of scientific methodology and attitudes actually hindered the development of practical solutions. (Seely, 1984)

Eugene Ferguson notes that there is an intellectual component of technology which is not literary nor scientific but which has been neglected in engineering education because its origins lie in art rather than science. This neglect has its consequences.

Absurd random failures that have plagued automatic control systems are not merely trivial aberrations; they are a reflection of the chaos that results when design is assumed to be primarily a problem in mathematics. (Ferguson, 1977, 835)

Brian Wynne, in his work on technological accidents has highlighted the problems that can result from naive assumptions about human behaviour that are made often by engineers. He argues that often technologies are designed with a prior hypothesis that "organisations can operate with perfect communication, or that expert people are not prone to distraction, illogic or complacency". Because such assumptions are invalid, then such technologies must then be adapted during operation and cannot operate according to the rules that were designed for them and a new set of workable operating routines are worked out as the human operators go along. (Wynne, 1988)

The tendency is for the public to view accidents as 'human error' and to assume some "drastic departure from normal rule-bound operating practices" by some incompetent operator whereas the real problem can be more fairly placed with the system designers who made unrealistic assumptions about human behaviour. (Wynne, 1988) Wynne puts forward the idea of technology as social experiment;

in the extent to which naive expert models of social relations and human interaction can be imposed, in authoritarian fashion, via 'technology', without engendering wide-scale social disruption and breakdown. (p158)

The need for an understanding of the human context of technological developments is not only necessary for the prevention of accidents however. There is an increasing need for engineers to choose technological solutions that are appropriate to their social context and to give consideration to the long-term impacts of their work, if only because the work of engineers can have wide-ranging effects. Today's technologies can impact on the whole globe and they can impact on future generations. Never before has there been such a moral imperative to consider what may have been thought of as unintended consequences in the past. Social responsibility has become an essential quality for engineers.

In a submission to the Committee to Review Australian Studies in Tertiary Education the Society for Social Responsibility in Engineering (S.S.R.E.) claimed

Present engineering education omits some of the essentials for intelligent and humane decision-making such as the discussion of the values and ethical responsibilities that must be implicit in much engineering work. . . Failure to discuss such issues denies engineering students an understanding of their profession, of the results of their work, and of the impact of technology in Australian society. (SSRE, 1985)

The S.S.R.E. identified several areas which were not covered by many engineering courses. These included historical perspectives of engineering, occupational health and safety, pollution control, environmental impact, industrial relations, an understanding of the role of the engineer in the society and the impact of engineering technology on the the social structure and culture. The S.S.R.E. also noted that engineering courses engender sexist attitudes that create obstacles for women engineering students. (SSRE, 1985)

The quality and appropriateness of future technological developments are therefore being dealt a double blow by engineering education as it is now. Firstly, it is not providing an appropriate education for young people who choose to do engineering, but secondly, and this aspect is often not recognised, it is discouraging potential engineers who might have a wider outlook or a more appropriate set of talents to offer. For example people who are good at, or enjoy, mathematical analysis are recruited at the expense of those who are better at design. Those potentially creative designers that are recruited "are either unchallenged or discouraged by the current curicula" (Kerr & Pipes, 1987, 37) as are those who are interested in people and who might have a better grasp of the social and political context in which the technology must function.


The image of engineering work as a technical rather than as a social activity is misleading and is a key factor in discouraging women from choosing engineering as a career. The fact that engineering work relies on social skills is only part of the story. One writer has gone so far as to suggest that engineers act as sociologists in their own right. Michael Callon, a French scholar of technology, argues that engineers use skills more commonly found in social scientists (Callon, 1987) Callon in common with several others, depicts the engineer as a system builder and he, together with several other authors, argues that technology development should be seen as the development of technological systems.

Technological systems involve not only physical artifacts, but also social organisations, legislative artifacts, natural resources, publications, research programs and university courses. (Hughes, 1983) All these elements are interacting components of a system which the engineer attempts to bring together, coordinate, manipulate and build upon.(Callon, 1987) Similarly John Law coins the term "heterogeneous engineers" to cover his description of the way engineers seek to associate entities that range from people, through skills to artifacts and natural phenomena. (Law, 1987) This activity is as much a social and even political activity as a scientific or technical activity.

Many would go even further and say that not only is technological system building a social activity but that the physical components of the system are also socially shaped. Engineers bring social values, ideologies and assumptions about social relations to their work and these together with their interpretations of the social context get translated into the hardware design and configuration. For example, Langdon Winner in an article entitled "Do Artifacts Have Politics?" identifies two ways in which artifacts can contain political properties. (Winner, 1980)(He defines politics as "arrangements of power and authority in human associations as well as the activities that take place within those arrangements."p123)

The first way is when the invention, design, or arrangement of a specific technical device or system becomes a way of settling a dispute. As an example he gives the very low overpasses on Long Island, New York, which were designed by Robert Moses deliberately to discourage the presence of buses which might carry poor and black people on his parkways. Similarly, he cites instances where machines have been introduced, despite their lack of cost-effectiveness specifically to break the power of unions of skilled workers.

A second way in which artifacts may be political, identified by Winner, is when such technologies "appear to require, or to be strongly compatible with, particular kinds of political relationships." He gives as a particularly obvious example of an inherently political artifact, the atom bomb.

As long as it exists at all, its lethal properties demand that it be controlled by a centralized, rigidly hierarchical chain of command closed to all influences that might make its workings unpredictable. The internal social system of the bomb must be authoritarian; there is no other way. (p131)

Similarly, David Dickson argues that factories were set up at the time of the industrial revolution as a way of incorporating a particular set of work relations into the production process. Merchants set up factories so that they would have better control over the production of weavers and their work habits and techniques. (Dickson, 1974, p73)

Dickson views the wider consequences of technological changes as resulting from the very nature of technology and the priorities and conscious motivations of those who design and implement technology. This contrasts with the more usual view that environmental and social impacts are either arise from the misuse of technology or that they are the unintended consequences of it. The latter more commonly held view enables engineering practice to be seen as a neutral activity divorced from the social realm whereas Dickson sees it is part of a political process.

Dickson also points out that societies do not always adopt the technologies which are available to them. He gives the example of the use of steam to drive elementary machinery which was known to the ancient Greeks. The incentive to develop and exploit such knowledge did not exist in that society whilst there were plenty of slaves to do the work.

Other writers argue that physical artifacts can be perceived differently by different people and groups. The choice between competing technological products depend on the problems people associate with each and the solutions they envisage. (Pinch & Bijker, 1987) Examples of such competing technologies include the competition between gas and electric refrigerators (Cowan, 1987) or between dry conservancy and water carriage methods of dealing with human wastes. (Beder, 1987) The choice between technologies is often based on social, political and cultural goals and power relationships as much as on criteria of efficiency and cost effectiveness.

The values and perceptions which engineers bring to their work will affect their designs, their judgements and their choices. Engineering is very much a social activity whether you consider it on a deep philosophical level or if you merely consider the social relations which are essential for engineering to be carried out. Yet engineering education ignores this and prefers to perpetuate the myth of the impartial, objective technologist developing neutral technologies in some sort of social vacuum. This, like the emphasis on science, is useful for status purposes. Engineers have more influence as expert advisers when technological decisions are artificially reduced to technical questions which they are in the best position to answer.

If engineering were portrayed more openly as a social activity, a whole new range of potential recruits would be available to the profession. At the moment those who are attracted to engineering are largely made up of male students who have a narrow range of interests, who are not 'people oriented' and who are not interested in the humanities or the social sciences. Perhaps this accounts for the reluctance of engineering educators, who have themselves been recruited in the same way, to broaden engineering education and to teach engineering as the social activity which it so obviously is.


Engineering education in Australia today misrepresents both the practice of engineering and the nature of technological development. By offering mainly technical subjects and by selecting prospective students according to their ability to get good grades in secondary school mathematics, physics and chemistry exams, engineering schools perpetuate an image of engineering practice as being only concerned with technical particulars and of technology as being shaped wholly by technical considerations. As a consequence, only a narrow range of people are attracted to the engineering profession.

The great majority of potential students do not have any real idea of what engineers do and so the choice to do engineering is made largely by a small range of students who enjoy maths and science and who identify themselves as being mechanically inclined. Many young people who do not fit this description may be discouraged from considering engineering as an option, although they may have talents that would be admirably suited to an engineering career. This tendency is amplified by selection criteria which are based on a minimum number of mathematics and science units having been taken at secondary school and on minimum grades in these subjects. Women are particularly at a disadvantage here because of social expectations and conditioning.

As a result those students who like the idea of engineering as portrayed by engineering schools and who are able to gain entry to those schools, tend to be a relatively homogeneous set of people who are not 'people oriented' and who are often not interested in wider social issues. These students are subject to a heavy work load of technical subjects, many of which are of questionable direct relevance to their future work and which are in the syllabus for extraneous reasons which have a lot to do with the status of engineering educators and the engineering profession in general.

Beneath this heavy work load there is little chance for the flowering of creativity, the development of a diversity of interests, the consideration of philosophical and ethical questions, or even personal development. They graduate, supposedly ready to invent, design and develop new technologies, some of which will have an enormous impact on our society, without understanding the context of their work or even being aware of their own values and beliefs which will inform their work. Even if they want to consider the wider consequences of the technologies they create, are they properly equipped to do it?


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