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How Technology Creates a "Culture of Disengagement"

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How Technology Creates a "Culture of Disengagement"

A survey shows that a STEM education makes college students cynical and less interested in social issues.

posted December 3, 2013

The benefits of a STEM education are well documented: Science, technology, engineering and math courses provide students with the skills they need to compete for jobs in cutting-edge industries, with great pay and opportunity for growth. But what is the downside of spending all that time in front of a computer or microscope?

Erin Cech, an assistant professor of sociology at Rice University, wanted to find out. Beginning in 2003, she conducted a survey of 300 college engineering students at four universities. Cech asked the students to "rate the importance of professional and ethical responsibilities and their individual views on the importance of improving society, being active in their community, promoting racial understanding and helping others in need." Participants were surveyed once a year for four years, and again 18 months after graduation.

The results are disheartening and surprising:

Cech said that as part of their education, engineering students learn the profession’s code of ethics, which includes taking seriously the safety, health and welfare of the public. However, she said, it appears that there is something about engineering education that results in students becoming more cynical and less concerned with public policy and social engagement issues.

Cech said that this “culture of disengagement” is rooted in how engineering education frames engineering problem-solving.

Issues that are nontechnical in nature are often perceived as irrelevant to the problem-solving process,” Cech said. “There seems to be very little time or space in engineering curricula for nontechnical conversations about how particular designs may reproduce inequality – for example, debating whether to make a computer faster, more technologically savvy and expensive versus making it less sophisticated and more accessible for customers.”

While the results are certainly thought-provoking, the sample size is small, and an article on Quartz points out that Cech should have compared this group to a control group of students in other subjects. Reporter Christopher Mims also suggests that behavior like this could be the result of a "harshly competitive economy."

Regardless of the reason, is this the effect technology has on our students? Let us know what you think in the Comments.

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