Canadian Consulting Engineer

By Bronwen Parsons   

Comment: Look up, and see the big picture

Engineering

The 2008 award-winning projects in this issue were chosen partly because of their technical innovations, but also because they bring great benefits to their communities. Engineering IS all about benef...

The 2008 award-winning projects in this issue were chosen partly because of their technical innovations, but also because they bring great benefits to their communities. Engineering IS all about benefiting society.

To hear some people talk about engineering education in the universities, it seems that message might be getting lost. John Ralston Saul, keynote speaker at the International Federation of Consulting Engineers (FIDIC) conference in Quebec City in September, warned about the problems of engineers focusing too hard on technical answers, and especially in the universities. Two professors who speak out in this issue, Professor Ron Britton (p. 68) and Professor Doug Reeve (p. 71), are also concerned.

In a world exploding with new technology and knowledge, it must be a conundrum for those who plan engineering education how to pack everything in. How do they teach courses related to politics, or society, or the environment, and at the same time train students in the hard skills and technical knowledge they need?

Recognizing the problem, the U. S. National Academy of Engineering has recommended extending the engineering degree beyond a four-year program. Lengthening the requirement to at least a master’s degree level would bring engineering into line with most other professions: architects, lawyers and doctors. Plus it would allow the students to be exposed more to the humanities and social sciences.

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It’s vital that engineers are taught to step back and look at the broader picture, said Ralston Saul. Saul is famous as the author of books like The Unconscious Civilization, and his latest, A Fair Country. He is not an engineer, but he managed to hold the audience at FIDIC spellbound.

He said that engineers are one of the top five professions who guide the direction of the world. He pointed out as an example that the phenomenal doubling of life expectancy for people in the western world between 1850 and 1920 was primarily thanks to the building of sewers and water mains, and other infrastructure. “You did this,” he said.

“But,” he said, these achievements were because the 19th century engineers “were on the leading edge of ideas … They understood the ethical and social needs of society; they understood politics, and then they applied their expertise.”

In contrast, he said, the engineer of today is absorbed in technical solutions. We have the problem of a profession caught in silos, where engineers are “judged by what you do, not by what you’re thinking about.” “You have written yourselves out of society,” Saul said.

The place to start making changes is in the universities, he said. “If you don’t get that right, it’s too late. You’ve already set the students on the wrong course.”

As someone else remarked at the FIDIC conference, teaching ethics does not mean that the engineer will act ethically. But having a deeper and more rounded view of the world must help engineers to see the problems of the people they serve more clearly, and therefore identify what really is the best solution. That hasn’t always happened in the past.

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