In recent years, some leaders in the engineering community in the United States and other countries have been seeking to cast engineering as a profession in service to humanity. This characterization is often propelled by “the problem” of an overall dearth of students entering engineering and a specific concern about underrepresentation of women and men of color as well as white women. Some say the problem is one of engineers not commanding enough respect in society or not achieving enough visibility.
I believe deeply in engineering’s potential to be a profession in service to humanity and to the planet, yet I cannot help but wonder whether what we have is merely a public relations problem or something deeper. I personally find it difficult to recruit high school students to engineering by holding out dreams of working on humanitarian or even environmental causes, when I know that most students will be working either on military endeavors focused on the facilitation of war or on corporate endeavors focused on increasing profits, often on the backs of poor communities.
The profession of law has a field of public interest law, in which the aim is an ideal of social justice, in which the poor are represented as skillfully as the rich, the environment is defended, and rights are extended to those who are not treated justly under current law. The medical profession has its cohort concerned with social justice that establishes clinics to extend access to health care, and public health practitioners make clear the connections between social problems and health problems, advocating fundamental change. How is it that the profession of engineering has not followed suit? Why is it so difficult to find communities of engineers interested in social justice? In writing this book, I have come across many more examples of engineers working for social justice than I imagined existed. Why do we remain so isolated from one another?