The Problem of Unchecked Motivations


According to our recent study at CU, engineers like ourselves that are involved with engineering service are much more likely than other engineers to be motivated to study engineering in order to help others1.  We are a uniquely motivated bunch of engineers.  We want to use engineering to provide community development and serve others’ basic needs.  This is not surprising.

What may be surprising, however, is the number of scholars who have flagged potential concerns about this motivation.  We tend to naively assume that our motivation to do good must be good.  We owe it to ourselves and to those that we aim to serve to check our motivations.  Here are a few reasons why.

First, scholars have pointed out that, “wanting to do good and doing good are not always the same thing” 2.  These authors have studied “Engineering to Help” activities for several years.  They have noticed that a lack of reflection can cause those engaged in engineering service to, “unknowingly entwine themselves in the long histories of colonialism, imperialism, and neoliberalism.”  If we are not reflective of our work, we may be perpetuating the same problems we hope to solve.

Others have pointed out that engineering service may mistakenly focus its activities on those learning engineering rather than on those being served.  Becoming blinded by our attention on learning, we engineers can create dependencies and prevent growth in communities being served3,4.  Fortunately, these first two concerns are increasingly being brought to engineers’ attention.

However, Barbara Heron’s study of those who had left their development careers highlights a largely ignored concern about the motivation to do good.  In her in-depth interview study5, Heron concludes that “our desire for development… can be more accurately understood as a profound desire for self.  And it is this… that shapes our seeing, our negotiations, and our resistance to our positions in relations of power.”  Heron argues that, in fact, our motivation to do good is a desire to see ourselves as good and, therefore, this desire blinds us to honest reflection about the work that we do.  She claims that we cannot see “our participation in domination” because we “need to prevent the potential shattering of moral narratives of self.”

While Heron’s conclusion may not describe all those involved with engineering service, her point should encourage each of us to honestly check our motivations.  Is our desire to do good truly for those we aim to serve?  Or, might our desire to do good be due, in part, to a desire to be seen as good?  Could that unchecked motivation be hindering our best possible service (e.g., “Don’t rush to Nepal to help”6)?   To reflect on and prevent attitudes of dominance, Heron recommends a “position of accountability,” in which we become willing “to be held accountable for who we are within our nation and the world.”

We know that competent and compassionate engineers are sorely needed to address the growing global population’s basic needs7.  But we also know, from our study8, that engineers involved with engineering service are less satisfied in their current engineering careers than other engineers.  We should encourage the continued growth of new educational programs and career opportunities for engineers to grow and apply their altruistic engineering motivations.  At the same time, we engineers with a passion for service should not become complacent with our motivations to do good.  We should grow a practice of checking our motivations in order to actually do the most good (and the least harm) that we can.

Kaitlin CUAbout the Author

Kaitlin Litchfield received her undergraduate degree in Civil Engineering from the University of New Hampshire and completed her PhD in Civil Engineering at the University of Colorado at Boulder in 2014.  She is an alumni of the Mortenson Center’s Engineering for Developing Communities program.



  1. Litchfield K., Javernick-Will A. (2015). “I am an Engineer AND”: A Mixed-Methods Study of Socially Engaged Engineers. Journal of Engineering Education; 104(4): 393–416.
  2. Schneider J., Lucena J., Leydens J.A. (2009). Engineering to Help: The Value of Critique in Engineering Service. IEEE Technology and Society Magazine; 28(4): 42–48.
  3. Riley D. (2008). Engineering and Social Justice. E-book. Morgan & Claypool. doi:10.2200/s00117ed1v01y200805ets007
  4. Lucena J., Schneider J., Leydens J.A. (2010). Engineering and Sustainable Community Development.  E-book. Morgan & Claypool.  doi:10.2200/S00247ED1V01Y201001ETS011
  5. Heron B. (2007). Desire for Development: Whiteness, Gender, and the Helping Imperative. Waterloo, Ontario, Canada: Wilfrid Laurier University Press.
  6. Bennett C. (2015).  Don’t rush to Nepal to help. Read this first. The Guardian. Available from:
  7. UNESCO. (2010). Engineering: Issues, challenges and opportunities for development. Paris, France: UNESCO.
  8. Litchfield K., Javernick-Will A. (n.d.). Socially Engaged Engineers’ Career Interests and Experiences: A Miner’s Canary. Journal of Professional Issues in Engineering Education and Practice. (Manuscript under review).

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