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Engineers Must Be Leaders, Not Followers

Engineers design, build and maintain. So says the orthodoxy. This traditional definition consigns engineers to passively executing the visions of others. This is an increasingly inadequate and inaccurate description. First of all it fails to acknowledge the influential role played by engineers in the public realm.

Engineers design, build and maintain. So says the orthodoxy. This traditional definition consigns engineers to passively executing the visions of others.

This is an increasingly inadequate and inaccurate description. First of all it fails to acknowledge the influential role played by engineers in the public realm.

The notion that engineers simply operate from splendid isolation in workshops and laboratories, if it ever were true, is an antiquated one. Engineers across the globe occupy positions of leadership in government, business and numerous organizations. Over one-billion Catholics are led by a trained engineer Pope Francis and fellow chemical engineer Xi Jinping leads the most populous nation on Earth. Last year over one-third of the Harvard Business Review's best-performing CEOs were engineering graduates.

Secondly, the traditional definition lets engineers off the hook. It abdicates us from the responsibilities we have for the consequences of our actions.

Engineers are working on solutions for some of our most pressing societal issues: energy, climate change and food security, among many others. The consequences of technological change can be momentous, and as history reminds us it's rarely possible to put a genie back in the bottle. The idea that they should do so without giving thought and consideration to the implications of their technology seems at short-sighted, if not downright irresponsible.

Engineering education that focuses only on technical depth risks creating graduates ill-prepared for both the leadership roles many will attain and the ethical responsibilities they will assume in our increasingly tech-focused society.

We need to train engineers who view technical depth as interchangeable with their broader role in society. People who understand the real world consequences of their actions. Passionate engineers who design with people in mind.

This won't be achieved by the occasional civics lesson or a single course in professional ethics. We need a new type of engineering education that puts the real world alongside abstract problem-solving. One that instills from the very beginning that students must be engaged contributors, not passive participants. One that puts accountability alongside opportunity.

Engineering schools must be concerned with more than just the acquisition of knowledge. We must teach things like the history of the engineering profession, the consequences of past mistakes and the ways in which real-life engineers must grapple with fuzzy issues as well as mathematical models to make judgments.

We want our students to be joining political societies as well as the robotics club, subscribing to The Economist alongside Popular Mechanics, and going to guest lectures at our university's law school not just competing in hackathons.

We should also expose our students to more than just fellow engineers. A modern engineering school should fling open its doors to political thinkers, poets, artists, writers -- as well as entrepreneurs, IP lawyers and scientists.

None of this requires big budgets or new pedagogical models.

Indeed, there are some things happening in engineering schools already. We need to do more and open our minds more enthusiastically to the world around us.

Our professional engineering school hosts an annual debate on a topical issue of public interest. This year we're discussing whether entrepreneurs are making our society more or less equal.

People often ask me why as an engineering school we're tackling these hot button socio-economic issues. After all, surely that's the purview of law schools or political science students, not something that aspiring engineers need to worry about. My simple answer is to ask whether we want engineers coming up with technology and making decisions about our future without thinking about the rest of us and the consequences -- moral, ethical and societal -- of these actions. Engineers, like these other professions, face continual questions and dilemmas that require more than a technical education.

It's our responsibility as educators to give our students the type of broad experience that instills in them the confidence, the ability and the sophistication to take on the grey areas that aren't always found in engineering textbooks.

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