Engineers have a duty to protect public well-being, but less than half learn how to do so effectively

Training in formal classes proves the most effective way to prepare engineers to protect public welfare at work
Prof Cynthia Finelli points to a circuitry diagram on the board while teaching a course.
Cynthia Finelli teaches EECS 215, Introduction to Circuits. Photo: Robert Coelius

Engineers who received public welfare responsibility training in classes are more likely to consider the societal impact of technologies they design and to take action when concerns arise, according to a study by University of Michigan researchers published in The Journal of Engineering Education.

While engineers are professionally obligated to protect the safety and well-being of those their technologies impact, the study found that nearly a third of U.S. practicing engineers have never received any training in public welfare responsibilities.

Public welfare impact encompasses pressing issues including safety concerns, differential access to the technology, environmental impact or issues of privacy or monitoring.

“Engineers cannot simply focus on innovation while turning a blind eye to how the technologies they create will impact people’s lives,” said Cynthia Finelli, the David C. Munson, Jr. Collegiate Professor of Engineering, a professor of electrical and computer engineering and (by courtesy) education at U-M, director of the College’s Engineering Education research program and contributing author on the study.

As demonstrated by recent public welfare issues in the news, including hostile AI chatbots, deception surrounding fossil fuel dangers, self-driving car crashes and faulty planes, many engineers are likely to encounter a situation at work where innovation may risk the health and safety of the public.

“Engineering professionals are unprepared in many cases to address issues that might arise relating to public welfare,” said Finelli.

To assess where engineers received training about public welfare responsibilities and the effectiveness of their training, the researchers surveyed a nationally representative sample of 508 working U.S. engineering professionals across a range of subfields.

Results point to a clear need to integrate this kind of training into all facets of higher education for both undergraduate and graduate students.

Cynthia Finelli

The survey asked about the types of training they had received on their professional responsibilities in various institutional contexts such as their engineering courses, their workplaces or through their professional societies. 

A set of measures tapped into participants’ own views on the public welfare responsibilities of engineering professionals and on those responsibilities in their own jobs. The survey also asked whether they had encountered ethical issues that concerned them in their workplaces and whether they had taken action in response.   

The study confirmed that many engineering professions do encounter public welfare issues at work—28% of participants reported they noticed an ethical concern at work at some point in their career and 26% said they have spoken up in response to a concern.

Although 79% of respondents agreed that it is an engineer’s professional responsibility to protect the health and safety of the public, many lack training to uphold this responsibility. 

When asked about training contexts, 39% reported they received public welfare responsibility training in formal engineering classes, 15% in other parts of college, 15% in professional societies and 46% in their workplace. Some were trained in multiple places. 

But in a finding that concerned the researchers, 30% of engineers acknowledged that they had never received training in their public welfare responsibilities at any point in their education or career. 

Cynthia Finelli passes out papers to a diverse group of about 30 students in her course.
Cynthia Finelli teaches a course. Her collaborative study with Erin Cech found that only 39% of surveyed engineers received public welfare responsibility training in formal classes. Photo: Robert Coelius

The likelihood of never receiving training varied by subfield. While 43% of computer scientists and 44% of industrial engineers never received public welfare training, only 6% of chemical and biological engineers and 4% of civil engineers went without training.

Of the four training contexts, engineering classes were the most effective. When engineers received such training, they were more likely to recognize their public welfare responsibilities. They were also more likely to have taken notice of ethical issues at work and to have taken action. For instance, engineers trained through classes were 30% more likely to have noticed an ethical issue in their workplace and 52% more likely to have taken action about a concerning issue compared to engineers who did not receive training.

Training received elsewhere, such as at work, had comparatively little impact.

“Results point to a clear need to integrate this kind of training into all facets of higher education for both undergraduate and graduate students,” said Finelli. 

As a next step, Finelli and Erin Cech, an associate professor of sociology and (by courtesy) mechanical engineering and corresponding author of the study, are piloting a one-credit course that will help better prepare engineering students for their public welfare responsibilities. Using data from this study, the professors will prepare case studies for students to dig into and learn how they can intervene when they enter the workforce.

If engineers don’t receive training in college, they may never receive effective training in these responsibilities.

Erin Cech

The ultimate goal is to create content that can be integrated into many other engineering courses at the University of Michigan and eventually disseminate teaching materials widely, similarly to an integrated circuits course that integrates sociotechnical issues that Finelli developed alongside a University of San Diego researcher. 

“My previous work found that ethics instruction compiled into a single course doesn’t have a lasting impact if students see the content as only related to that course. Repetitively reinforcing the importance of ethics and of their responsibilities to the public through instruction is probably the best approach,” said Finelli.

“Training engineers to understand their responsibilities to public welfare in undergraduate education is vital. Many workplaces may have ethics training, but it is often cursory. Companies have little incentive to train engineers to be watchdogs of  public welfare. If engineers don’t receive training in college, they may never receive effective training in these responsibilities,” said Cech. 

Michigan Engineering has been working alongside this effort to ensure students are educated in the societal impacts of their work. For example, through its unique Engineering Education Research program, faculty members with backgrounds in both engineering and education fields are embedded in academic departments, and many are working to prioritize teaching about sociotechnical topics. The Teaching Equity in Engineering Center, funded by the National Science Foundation, is working to equip instructors to incorporate social outcomes and considerations into their courses. These are just two examples of the ramifications of the people-first engineering framework that has guided Michigan Engineering since 2022.

Cech and Finelli’s research is supported by the US National Science Foundation (grant number 2053046).

Full citation: “Learning to prioritize the public good: Does training in classes, workplaces, and professional societies shape engineers’ understanding of their public welfare responsibilities?,” Erin A. Cech and Cynthia J. Finelli, The Journal of Engineering Education (2024). DOI: 10.1002/jee.20590