We Need People-Centered Engineering

Photo by Jason Mowry on Unsplash

In the technical world, “people” are rarely talked about. Within UT Austin’s Cockrell School of Engineering, it is no different. Although the university’s slogan is “What starts here changes the world,” engineering students within the college have limited opportunities to learn about the populations they will serve after graduation.

I am a 4th-year aerospace engineering student at UT. Recently, I have become discouraged by the lack of courses and programs offered within Cockrell that are not purely technical. In a world where all the problems we are addressing are complex and multi-faceted, it is important we consider the technical and non-technical components of each challenge. Climate change, artificial intelligence, and large infrastructure projects all contain a human element to them. Climate change affects poorer communities the most, artificial intelligence has been found to contain bias, and large infrastructure projects often displace marginalized communities. Engineers will surely be involved in each of these social issues and many more. In addressing these challenges, it is necessary we develop a framework to think about the people affected by each of these global issues.

Cockrell has taken steps towards offering people-centered programs such as Projects with Underserved Communities (PUC), but more can be done. With UT Austin’s plethora of resources, this shouldn’t be hard to do. Classes that focus on the ethical side of engineering projects will challenge us to come up with more comprehensive solutions. This was brought up in an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education in which the authors reference the necessity for engineering education to be familiar with the historical, social, political, and economic contexts of a project. The article also acknowledges that engineering programs across the country often face internal barriers (structural and cultural) when attempting to integrate liberal arts components into their curriculum. I have experienced some of these barriers at UT. Engineering students are often reluctant to take liberal arts courses. Instead of recognizing the value that the course may add, it’s simply viewed as a tedious requirement. This sentiment is expressed by advisors as well.

I understand that prospective students apply and eventually enroll in Cockrell with the goal of receiving an engineering education, but intentionally integrating liberal arts courses into our curriculum won’t make us worse engineers — it will make us better. After interacting with my peers for almost 4 years, I genuinely believe that we have what it takes to “change the world.” However, I think we would be in a better position to do so if we were familiar with a non-technical way of thinking as well.

If you don’t know the population you’re making solutions for, then how do you know what you’re even creating?

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