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Human-centered engineering: It’s not rocket science. It’s more important than that.

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This past summer, in the middle of a global pandemic, a multi-billionaire shot himself into space for 10 minutes just because he could. Over the same summer, 21 hurricanes made 2021 one of the most active and expensive hurricane seasons to date; nearly a foot and a half of rain caused devastating floods in Tennessee that killed over 20 people; and wildfires in California burned over a 75-day season.

While a rocket launch and a series of climate change-fueled disasters may not be directly connected, the juxtaposition is a stark example of the odd ways in which our society prioritizes the use of our technological prowess. Whether our abundant technology is used for ends that are good, bad or frivolous, there’s a good chance that an engineer has been involved somewhere along the way.

Engineers have historically been the ones tasked with creating physical solutions to an array of problems. When rivers flooded farmland, civil engineers constructed dams. When cities expanded and people needed to travel farther faster, mechanical engineers designed trains, planes and automobiles. When viruses threatened huge populations, biomedical engineers invented vaccines.

Today, however, engineers are typically called on to solve problems of “wants” rather than “needs” – creating annually-released iPhones, boondoggle infrastructure projects and convenience products.

The tools engineers have available to satisfy those wants are more powerful than ever before. In previous eras, making things took time, expertise and resources, which were often in short supply or were expensive. Today, the modern engineer can design a product once, and in a few short weeks can manufacture it by the hundreds or thousands.

That seems great on the surface. But when production and design are pushed to meet inessential demands with the same fervor that high-value production has required in the past, there is collateral damage to the environment and to people. Cheap plastic products might sell, but at the cost of the emissions required to make them and accumulated plastic in our environment. Unnecessary highway expansion projects might increase runoff pollution and encourage people to drive more, both of which damage ecosystems. Expensive rocket builds and launches might make for good press, but also emit nitrogen oxides and water vapor that deplete the ozone layer.

While accredited engineering programs require students to “recognize ethical and professional responsibilities in engineering situations and make informed judgments, which must consider the impact of engineering solutions in global, economic, environmental, and societal contexts,"this often fails to happen in any real way. Engineering education still operates under the assumption that producing and designing new products has a greater benefit than detriment to society – despite mounting evidence of the damage that wasteful products can have on the environment.

The solution is not, as has been the case for years, to have engineering ethics courses be taught by veteran engineers steeped in the habits and traditions of the trade, but rather to challenge up-and-coming engineers to consider why the world really needs engineers in the first place.

In fall of the ‘21-’22 school year, for example, Boston College launched a human-centered engineering program, intended to burst the engineering “bubble” by acknowledging that “[t]he threats facing society and our planet are real and rapidly progressing” — specifically addressing environment, health and energy issues, and supplying an avenue for students to focus on creating change in the issue areas that drive them. By addressing major problems in the world, the program provides students with a purpose beyond economic productivity. As Dr. Glenn Gaudette, the department chair, puts it, “We’re trying to develop the technical skills that engineers need to have, but with a mindset focused on applying those skills to make the world a better place for others.”

For engineers, or anyone in a position of influence, developing the tools to put one’s work in the broader context of its societal impact is essential. Only then can engineers and other problem-solvers put their skills to use where they’re needed as opposed to just where they’re wanted, and ensure that they are not creating more problems than they are solving. 

A degree entitled ‘human-centered engineering’ raises the question: Why isn’t all engineering human-centered? When provided with the tools to make the world a better place, students should be equipped with the knowledge and responsibility to do so. While not every degree path needs to be presented as a humanitarian endeavor, inviting more engineers to ask, “hey, why are we making this rocket again?” can develop a generation of young professionals who make the right choices and influence realistic changes for the better.

Thank you to Dr. Glenn Gaudette, Chair of the Department of Engineering at Boston College.

Photo: Engineering students practicing drafting designs, 1919. Image via Flickr, CC Public Domain 1.0

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