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Faculty Resources - Integrating Faith & Learning

Reflections on Integrating Engineering into My Christian Life

Gayle E. Ermer | September 2002

Opening Thoughts

The relationship between my faith and my discipline is derived from my understanding of my vocation, or calling.  As a Christian, I believe I am called to service.  In gratitude for God's saving grace, I respond by loving him with all my heart and growing in my love for others.  I am called to do this in the world, not just in church or in my own devotions.  I am to serve as God's hands, working his will in his kingdom here on earth.  The way I love my neighbors is through connecting with them and attempting to fill their needs.  My life, in its entirety, should reflect this commitment to the flourishing of God's people and God's creation.

I seek to apply this idea of being called to serve, or as Neal Plantinga expresses it in his book Engaging God's World, of being called to work toward "shalom, the way things are supposed to be,"[1] in all the different arenas of my life.  I play many different roles as I interact with my environment.  I am called to service in Christ's church, in my family relationships, in my neighborhood, in my friendships, in my politics, and in my occupation. The work that I am paid to do governs much of my time. It is crucial to balance work with the other spheres of engagement, and I am grateful that Calvin College has provided me with a reduced load position to help me maintain that balance.  But my professional career should certainly not be viewed as a sphere that is separate from my Christian mission.  I am thankful that God has led me to a career at Calvin College, with all the roles that career entails.  I wholeheartedly support Calvin's mission: "offering our hearts and lives to do God's work in God's world."  Having committed myself to the discipline of mechanical engineering as the means for this service, I need to think carefully about the nature of technology and engineering work.

To organize my consideration of how an engineering career, and specifically a career as an engineering teacher and scholar, meshes with my understanding of Christian vocation, I will use the structure suggested by Alvin Plantinga in his "Twin Pillars of Christian Scholarship."[2]  Plantinga suggests two ways in which Christianity can be brought to bear on scholarly or professional endeavors. The first pillar consists of a critique of founding principles of the discipline. The second consists of a positive application of Christian principles and ideals to the task of scholarship in our discipline. In the context of the first pillar, I will address some of the central goals of engineers and engineering educators in order to identify those that are or can be made consistent with a Christian calling. Given the Reformed view that engineering, like any other human activity, exhibits both aspects of God's good creation and of humanity's fall into sin, those principles will be in some ways in accord with, but in other ways opposed to, our Christian beliefs.  For the second pillar, I will describe some ways we can approach modern engineering to make it more effective in addressing the goals Christians would have it serve.  These approaches underlie the teaching and scholarly agendas that I have chosen to pursue.

The Nature of Engineering

To do a critique of the discipline of engineering it is necessary to identify its fundamental goals and principles.  A comprehensive description of engineering philosophy is beyond the scope of this essay.  To approach an understanding of the engineer's purpose, I will make some general comments about my understanding of technology and the engineer's relationship to technology.  Then, I will identify some common principles by which engineers operate with the intention of determining how those principles fit in with a Reformed Christian world and life view.

Modern Technology

There is no question that modern life in the industrialized world is reliant on technology.  Society depends on technology to transport people and goods from place to place safely, to provide sanitary living conditions, to protect people from extremes of the physical environment, and increasingly to allow communication with people both near and far.  Technology has contributed, in ways too numerous to count, to the flourishing of many individuals and cultures.

Technology can be viewed by Christians as a response to the cultural mandate expressed in Genesis 1:28:  "God blessed them and said to them, 'Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it.' " God created the heavens and the earth from nothing.  He created humans in his image, reflecting the same creativity that God expressed in his construction of the universe. Since we are finite beings we cannot create from nothing, but God has given us the material resources of this world with which to create the things that can help us flourish.  In Jesus' story about the final judgment in Matthew 25, he praises those who satisfied the needs of others: "For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me. I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me." Technology provides society with powerful tools to satisfy the needs described in this passage.

Technology also clearly exhibits the results of man's fall into sin.  At the same time we celebrate the benefits of technology, we see it as detracting from shalom by despoiling the environment in the process of claiming resources and transforming them into usable goods.  The amount of resources used to support our technological life-styles is not sustainable and technology is not distributed equitably.  We are frustrated by products that do not live up to our expectations.  Man-made inventions have solved many problems, but have also caused new ones.  Technological products pose risks that can never be entirely eliminated.  The consequences of implementing new technologies on society and the environment can never by fully anticipated. Our culture has distorted the value of technical solutions, looking to engineering and science as the solution for all the world's problems.  Technology that protects us and provides for many of our needs also distracts us from our dependence on God.

Engineering Responsibilities

Where do engineers fit into this picture?  Engineers have a significant responsibility in planning and making decisions related to technology.  Engineers are problem solvers.  Their primary task is design of technology: creating a system, artifact, or process that serves a particular purpose. Engineers are often constrained by other people and institutions in this process, for example managers and government regulations, but their expertise generally guarantees that their recommendations are taken seriously. If a profession is defined by its published Code of Ethics (as Michael Davis proposes in his book, Thinking Like an Engineer)[3] then The National Society of Professional Engineers (NSPE) Code of Ethics is the closest thing engineers have to a mission statement. This code expresses the goals of the engineering profession as conceived of by its practitioners (Christian and non-Christian) over the past century. The fundamental principles and canons are included below.

Code of Ethics for Engineers

Preamble

Engineering is an important and learned profession. As members of this profession, engineers are expected to exhibit the highest standards of honor and integrity. Engineering has a direct and vital impact on the quality of life for all people. Accordingly, the services provided by engineers require honesty, impartiality, fairness, and equity, and must be dedicated to the protection of the public health, safety, and welfare. Engineers must perform under a standard of professional behavior that requires adherence to the highest principles of ethical conduct.

The Fundamental Canons

Engineers, in the fulfillment of their professional duties, shall:

  1. hold paramount the safety, health and welfare of the public.
  2. perform services only in areas of their competence.
  3. issue public statements only in an objective and truthful manner.
  4. act for each employer or client as faithful agents or trustees.
  5. avoid deceptive acts.
  6. conduct themselves honorably, responsibly, ethically, and lawfully so as to enhance the honor, reputation, and usefulness of the profession.

For the most part these are goals that Christians can readily appropriate. Christians certainly want to use their knowledge and skill for the enhancement of human welfare, and to be truthful, faithful, and fair. The emphasis on safety holding priority in design work is central to the engineering ethos.  A Reformed understanding of common grace allows us to recognize that even those engineers without experience of God's saving grace can still do good in this fallen world. An engineering curriculum constructed to meet the goals specified above should therefore also be consistent with what a Christian engineer would want to teach. Certainly our ultimate loyalty does not belong to our clients or employers, to our profession, or even to the public.  But, in most cases serving these constituencies faithfully can be an expression of our ultimate loyalty to God.

The results achieved by engineering depend on the understanding of "human welfare" in this statement. Our culture consistently identifies human welfare with the physical well-being of individuals and their freedom to pursue pleasure. Without an understanding of the true, spiritual nature of human beings defined in their relationship to their creator, engineers influenced by this secular culture may lose sight of the real goal.  Neil Postman[4] describes modern culture as a "Technopoly."  He states that "those who are most comfortable in Technopoly are those who are convinced that technical progress is humanity's supreme achievement and the instrument by which our most profound dilemmas may be solved."  Many engineers, including those who identify themselves as Christians, may consciously or not fall into this category.  Christians have a duty to work toward putting technology back into its proper place, oriented under God's Lordship over all, and directed towards the goal of shalom rather than as an end in itself.  Christian engineers should be aware of their own limitations and the limitations of their technology.  We should encourage humility, which allows us to respond to real needs while limiting the tendency to apply technology indiscriminately.

Reforming Engineering

Many engineers operate under the assumption that technology is neutral or "value-free." The implication is that a designed object or system is not intrinsically good or bad, but instead its goodness or badness is determined by its use.  This is the familiar "guns don't kill people, people kill people" argument.  Of course, the use of a particular technology does determine its value to a great extent.  But, particular objects lend themselves to different uses depending on how they were designed. Designers are therefore responsible to some extent for the uses to which their products are put, since the values embedded in the object determine its function.  For example, a designer may choose to hold two dissimilar materials in a product together with a permanent fastener.  If the user of the product wishes to recycle that product at the end of its useful life, this fastener may make it impossible for the materials to be separated economically.  The product is not recyclable because of the way its materials and manufacture were planned by its designers. A Christian engineer needs to be aware of the value choices made as part of the design process.

God's saving grace applies to technology as well as to all other aspects of the created order.  The creative impulse of man has been misdirected by sin, but Christians are called to redeem this aspect of creation by practicing design that follows Biblical guidelines.  The book Responsible Technology[5] describes a set of guidelines or norms for technology. These principles describe the way technology ought to function. Since technology impacts individuals and societies in so many different ways, the norms are holistic in the sense that they reflect the entire scope of how people live and interact. My interpretation of the norms, with brief descriptions, is included here.  These norms provide a way to bring technology back into the service of God and society. They provide truths that the Christian engineer should pursue.

The first norm is Cultural Appropriateness. Technology should fit the society in which it will be implemented.  Engineers should be able to put themselves in the shoes of the people who will use their designs to anticipate how they will affect not just individuals but the societies in which they live.  A second norm is transparency. The composition and use of technology should be clear to all, including non-technologists, and the risks and benefits should be honestly communicated.  The next norm is stewardship. This norm encompasses the idea that the world and all its resources belong to God, who has given us permission to use and develop those resources for his glory. We should use these resources frugally and efficiently, and work to minimize the effects of technology on the natural environment.  Another design norm is harmony.  The design should be pleasing to use, attractive, and promote healthy relationships.  Justice is the norm encompassing fairness and legality.  Benefits and burdens of a design should not be allocated disproportionately.  The norm of caring reflects that technological solutions should address real needs and express Christian love to all individuals.  The last norm is trust.  Engineers should create technology that is reliable and worthy of trust on the part of those who make and use it.

Technology is a tool that needs to be shaped by Christian values to be effective in ministering to the needs of the world.  The ability to communicate these ideas to students is crucial for their development as mature Christians and as effective engineers.

I believe students in Calvin's engineering program are well served by a strong liberal arts component as an integral part of their engineering education. It is in liberal arts courses, as well as in their major courses, that engineering students develop an understanding of themselves and the society in which they live.

Implementation

It is clear to me (at least as I look back) that God has closed and opened doors in order to direct the path of my life.  His guiding hand has brought me to Calvin as an engineering professor.  I am grateful that Calvin has challenged me to develop a Christian perspective on my field in a way that teaching or working elsewhere would not have allowed.  The Kuiper seminar was very valuable in helping me articulate an authentic and personal Reformed worldview.  Teaching a section of the Developing a Christian Mind (DCM) course on appropriate technology has allowed me to further refine those views and develop a means for instilling them in students. As I have set an agenda for my activities in the past and plan for the future, with the help of the Holy Spirit I am working to apply and develop the truths I have expressed above.

As a mechanical engineer with a focus on manufacturing my goal is to serve as a witness to the world by using the gifts God has given me in the form of technical skills and education and by exhibiting Christian virtues. Bringing my Reformed perspective to bear also means that I explicitly try to apply the design norms to my work. I ask myself how my project is contributing to technology that furthers God's kingdom by looking beyond my particular task to how it fits in with the whole. I worked at Johnson Controls Automotive as a manufacturing engineer during the summer of 2001.  While there, I helped to develop a new material for headliners (the "ceiling" of a vehicle).  From my Christian perspective, having safe, comfortable and affordable vehicles available is a good thing.  Reducing vehicle cost, reducing vehicle weight (therefore increasing fuel efficiency), and reducing the amount of resources consumed in the manufacture of the vehicle are all goals that impel me to correctly understand a material's behavior in service. A systems perspective, one that recognizes and accounts for the interactions between all of the components of a design over its entire life cycle, can help identify issues that extend beyond what most engineers assume to be the scope of their problem. The new material we were assessing was recyclable, which was considered to be an advantage. Unfortunately, in most reclaimed vehicles, all "soft" interior components (plastics and cloth) are pulled out and disposed of without separation.  The fact that the new material was recyclable would have little meaning if it could not be separated from other materials.  Without some change to the system of automobile disposal, individual choices of recyclable materials can have little impact. This system is determined partially by technical considerations but also by economics, regulations, and consumer demand. Christians and non-Christians alike can work through their governments and professional organizations to promote more opportunities for reuse of engineering materials.

My own individual efforts can only go so far in producing change. By passing a vision of the connection between Christian vocation and engineering on to my students, I hope they can make a much greater impact. The challenge lies in how this vision can be expressed to students in a way that they can understand and are motivated to act upon. Modeling these ideas through my own words and actions is imperative. Sharing my own struggles with decision-making related to engineering design and technology use can increase awareness of the issues.  I continue to work on creating space, both in and out of the classroom, for conversations about these topics. It is also important for me to stay involved with engineering in industry. Having first-hand knowledge of the kinds of challenges students will face helps me to prepare them to meet those challenges. 

Another effective way to emphasize the importance of engineering as a Christian calling is to involve students in service learning projects.  In the first year engineering design course, I supervise students as they design devices or systems to help individuals with disabilities perform meaningful work.  These projects can help students envision themselves as problem-solvers responding to individual and societal needs. Students get a first-hand experience of the benefits technology can provide, as well as the obstacles to designing effective technology and the places where technological solutions alone are not enough to solve the problem.  Hopefully, the attitude cultivated by these projects will influence the goals of all the design decision-making encountered by students in their academic work and in industry.

I have also worked to bring more context, in the form of additional information and questions related to the broader impact of particular types of analysis, into all of my technical courses.  This is consistent with the design focus of Calvin's curriculum. The importance of analytical problem solving skills becomes very obvious to students through the amount of time spent on learning those skills. Putting the engineering science material in a design context broadens the scope of issues that have to be dealt with. Students need to be challenged to consider the design norms as ethical guidelines in all of their design decisions. Even outside of design projects, I look for opportunities to ask students to reflect from a Christian standpoint on the topics of their study, for example to explore why the quality management principles of W. Edwards Deming (a promoter of continuous improvement based on statistical methods) might be more consistent with a Christian view than a standard scientific management approach. I also emphasize concepts like robust design (designs that continue to function reliably despite unanticipated changes in manufacture or use), life cycle design, and sustainability that are particularly appropriate for Christians to promote.

My scholarly agenda has been guided by needs I've identified in my roles as engineer and teacher, by my own interests and inclinations, and by opportunities God has provided.  I am continuing to develop hands-on laboratory and project activities for my machine dynamics course to provide motivation and design focus.  I intend to publish these exercises as a web-resource or textbook supplement.

The experiences of teaching DCM and the first-year engineering course have stimulated an interest in broadening and deepening my understanding of what it might mean to do engineering "Christianly."  Two particular areas in which I have focused this interest are engineering ethics and engineering as vocation.  In the area of engineering ethics, I co-authored a paper that was presented at the American Society of Engineering Education annual national conference. I also produced a version of that paper for the Christian Engineering Educators Conference.  My continuing involvement with this group presents valuable opportunities for learning from Christian colleagues and disseminating my own ideas.  I was also accepted to attend a National Science Foundation workshop on Ethics Across the Curriculum.  Based on what I learned in that workshop I have constructed activities for introducing ethics-related issues into my courses.  I plan to provide leadership in developing a comprehensive plan for including ethics and Christian perspective across our curriculum this fall.

In the area of vocation, I was able to attend a seminar and workshop sponsored by Baylor University on Vocation and the Professions of Engineering and Computer Science this summer.  The seminar deepened my understanding of a Reformed concept of vocation and supported my proposal for research related to vocation and engineering.  As a Lilly Faculty Scholar I am receiving support to determine why we have fewer females in our program at Calvin than engineering schools do nation-wide and to plan programming that can help us recruit and retain female engineers.

I have discussed with colleagues from other Christian colleges the possibility of writing a new book on technology from a vocational standpoint.  I see a need for a textbook that can be used to summarize a Christian vision of technology for students.  The book Responsible Technology has been a valuable resource for me, but it needs to be updated.  More effort could be expended in making the design norms concrete, and assessing the norms in the light of Biblical teaching and Christian philosophy.  I have identified a group of scholars with which I plan to participate on this project.  I look forward to reading extensively in the areas of philosophy of technology, philosophy of engineering, and engineering ethics from both secular and Christian perspectives.

Concluding Thoughts

The core mission of the Calvin College Engineering Program is to educate engineers as designers, to solve problems in society through the responsible use of technology for the glory of God.  We are very proud to see our graduates choose technical careers that are explicitly mission-related, for example aiding in third world country development or designing communications networks for spreading the gospel. The vast majority of our graduates, however, will go to engineering workplaces in profit-driven companies in the privileged culture of North America, where the connection between their work and their faith will be more tenuous. We need Christian engineers in our society who understand the holistic nature of technology and are willing and able to use the design norms to redeem the technology that so pervades our daily lives.

I am grateful to be a part of this community of learners at Calvin College where the calling to be agents of renewal in our world is taken seriously. The ongoing process of thinking deeply about the implications of my faith on my life is difficult but rewarding. The challenge of bringing all my thoughts and actions under the Lordship of Christ is daunting. Under my own power I could only fall short, but by the grace of the Holy Spirit I can hope to mature in my Christian walk and fulfill the calling that God has extended to me.


[1] Plantinga, Cornelius, Jr, Engaging God's World: A Reformed Vision of Faith, Learning, and Living. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdman's Publishing Company, 2002, p. 15.

[2] Plantinga, Alvin. "The Twin Pillars of Christian Scholarship," The Henry Stob Lectures, 1990. Grand Rapids, MI: Calvin College, 1990.

[3] Davis, Michael. Thinking Like an Engineer: Studies in the Ethics of a Profession. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1998.

[4] Postman, Neil. Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology. New York, NY: Random House, 1992, p. 71.

[5] Monsma, Stephen V. (ed). Responsible Technology. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdman's Publishing Company, 1986, pp. 170-177.