Last Word

They’re Here to Help

Social scientists enable engineers to see the gaps in their own expertise.
Opinion By Gary Lee Downey, Juan C. Lucena, Donna Riley, and Jameson Wetmore

A key contribution that social scientists make to engineering educators lies in helping engineers learn to reflect critically on their expertise, identities, and commitments. Critical reflection is essential to defining problems and proposing solutions that can be socially, economically, and environmentally sustainable.

Teaching engineers to reflect critically on themselves is especially challenging given the dominant emphasis on mathematical problem solving in the engineering sciences. Social scientists committed to helping engineers do their work better must figure out ways of participating effectively while avoiding the twin risks of arrogant social engineering and simple consulting that do not challenge engineers to reflect.

The article “Strange Bedfellows” (Prism, March-April 2013) graphically illustrates the challenges social scientists face in seeking effective critical participation. While thorough, the article, in our view, perpetuates the notion that engineers and engineering educators set goals and then bring in social scientists to help with some of the details.

In fact, many of the scholars cited focus on helping engineers see the limits of engineering expertise and understand the dangers of not engaging effectively with those who have other forms of expertise. For instance, Gary Downey (Virginia Tech) helped Michelin U.S. engineers recognize they were mistakenly projecting American identities and commitments onto senior managers in France. After Downey provided three videos about engineers in France and joined a senior U.S. Michelin team in a three-hour conversation, they came to see how their focus on low-cost production for mass consumption came across to their French colleagues, who likely valued quality methodologies derived from fundamental principles. In a triumphant telephone call two months later, the Americans said that by critically analyzing themselves, they had improved relations with their French colleagues.

Juan Lucena (Colorado School of Mines) engages with engineers to dispel the myth that the world is divided into a technical domain, which engineers claim for themselves, and a social domain, that should be left for others to worry about. Failure to critically examine this artificial dichotomy can lead engineers to ignore the triple bottom line of people, planet, and profit, potentially exacerbating both social inequalities and environmental degradation.

To dispel this dangerous myth, Jameson Wetmore (Arizona State University) leads a two-week policy immersion in Washington, D.C., that introduces engineers to government officials with technical degrees who consider the triple bottom line in their work through collaboration with experts from a wide array of other disciplines. With an understanding that technical knowledge constitutes only a small percentage of a solution, graduates of the program go on to collaboratively develop new research projects with social scientists and government agencies.

Donna Riley (Smith College) integrates social science into her engineering classrooms to help students reflect critically on their involvement in systems that are already both technical and social in nature. With Dean Nieusma (Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute), she has questioned whether engineers are competent to undertake development work, because of the widespread lack of sociotechnical perspective – and the transformations in expertise, identity, and commitments that this perspective produces – in engineering curricula.

Some social scientists do indeed limit their contributions to helping engineers and engineering educators achieve goals they have already set. Such cases, we wager, are a minority. A significant majority accepts the challenges of critical participation and seeks to help engineers and engineering educators critically analyze who they are, what they know, and what they want. In doing so, they improve the abilities of engineers to avoid the real risk of being relegated to a subordinate, technical-support role.


Gary Lee Downey is Alumni Distinguished Professor of Science and Technology Studies at Virginia Tech; Juan C. Lucena is a professor and director of humanitarian engineering at the Colorado School of Mines; Donna Riley is an associate professor of engineering at Smith College; Jameson Wetmore is an assistant professor and senior sustainability scientist at Arizona State University.