Does Studying Engineering Make You a Worse Person?

Greg Wheeler
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An engineering degree is one of the most valuable college assets that you can pursue, but a recent survey by an assistant professor at Rice University seems to indicate that science, technology, engineering and math courses may not deliver many of the skills needed for regular social interaction in the modern business world. The study noted that students seeking an engineering degree put far less importance on nontechnical skills when attempting to solve problems. This may lead to a perceived lack of empathy and make it more difficult for those with an engineering degree to interact with business partners and clients.

Learning engineering skills includes many lessons on technical problem solving. Solving the problems of racism, for instance, or other social inequalities requires a focus on nontechnical methods of working with people and related issues. The study of three hundred engineering students appears to indicate that students eliminate nontechnical data and options when faced with such challenges. STEM students may attempt to apply their engineering skills where more social skills are needed, creating a perceived lack of empathy and appreciation for nontechnical thoughts and concerns.

The social skills needed for many modern jobs that require an engineering degree may not emerge from traditional studies. An engineer must demonstrate many different skills when working with others on a construction site or in a manufacturing plant. Failure to develop empathy and key social skills can put new students at a disadvantage against experienced workers who understand that the human element is important in the modern business world. One of the key findings of the study is that the modules required for an engineering degree foster a "culture of disengagement," which tends to give students the perception that they exist largely in a vacuum where technical skills are the only requirement.


The study did not find complete disengagement. Students did well on social issues when the subject of work ethics and codes that govern the engineering field were brought into the equation. This shows that the culture of disengagement does not mean a complete lack of humanity or that people turn into unfeeling versions of themselves, but it is likely to lead to an erosion of the tools that allow them to interact with others in a nontechnical fashion.


College students often learn to play well with others through social events and activities as well as studies in sociology. Students involved in STEM curricula may well lack this interaction and training. Engineering students may find themselves in a figurative bubble that excludes the emotions and insights of others. They may dismiss input from sources that they believe are unrelated when it comes to problem solving. This does not mean that they are bad people, but it may require real-world experience for them to develop or redevelop the skills that allow those with an engineering degree to succeed in today's highly integrated and interpersonal workforce.


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