Engineering in a crisis : observing students’ perceived roles of engineers during pandemics and natural disasters




LaPatin, Michaela

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Engineers have a responsibility to use their skills to protect the welfare of communities. When these ethical responsibilities are discussed in classrooms, the focus is usually on microethics, which focuses on individual decision-making, rather than macroethics that address broad societal concerns. The COVID-19 pandemic has presented a unique opportunity to assess macroethics attitudes because unjust social, economic, and environmental systems have been brought to the forefront amidst the response (e.g., inequitable healthcare systems). In this paper, we consider the COVID-19 pandemic and natural disasters through the lens of engineering macroethics. We aim to understand students’ macroethics attitudes and perceptions about the responsibilities of engineers. In Fall 2020, we deployed a survey to undergraduate engineering students at two universities (n = 520). We asked students to discuss what they perceived to be the role of the engineering profession in response to the global COVID-19 pandemic and natural disasters. We used qualitative content analyses to explore responses in which macroethics attitudes are present and to evaluate the actions that students believe engineers should take in the wake of a crisis. Many of these responses include considerations of infrastructure resilience, resource distribution, and community equity. Logit models were then used to assess the presence of macroethics attitudes in relation to sociodemographic factors of respondents, revealing that factors, including family size, major, and gender influenced these attitudes. Implications from this study include recommendations on curricular content and identifying which student demographic groups would benefit most from intentional macroethical content in coursework.


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