Changing the conversation

i-02b069c1f3dd286440a1e5decf3ec92f-4.3C8A.gifWe’ve been having a couple of interesting conversations on this blog about what makes an engineer, or who becomes an engineer. The National Academy of Engineering has been facilitating a conversation about this too, and have just published a report about it.

I have just ordered my copy, so I haven’t read the report yet. But I have heard a couple of presentations on it, and the rough summary is that engineering needs an image change. We need ideas other than the stories of “engineering is problem solving” or “engineering is making things” to attract those who have the talent engineering needs into the profession. Instead of emphasizing engineering’s difficulty, eliteness, or technical content, or how it will involve long hours and lots of math, the NAE suggests emphasizing these ideas (p. 8):

Engineers make a world of difference. From new farming equipment and safer drinking water to electric cars and faster microchips, engineers use their knowledge to improve people’s lives in meaningful ways.

Engineers are creative problem-solvers. They have a vision for how something should work and are dedicated to making it better, faster, or more efficient.

Engineers help shape the future. They use the latest science, tools, and technology to bring ideas to life.

Engineering is essential to our health, happiness, and safety. From the grandest skyscrapers to microscopic medical devices, it is impossible to imagine life without engineering.

Engineers connect science to the real world. They collaborate with scientists and other specialists (such as animators, architects, or chemists) to turn bold new ideas into reality.

While there seem to be some same-old same-old in here, I did like a couple of the other ideas the NAE wants to promote:

Ideas in Action.

Life Takes Engineering.

A limitless imagination.

Free to explore.

Shape the future.

An enterprising spirit.

Okay, there are still some hubris issues about these messages, and they’re also not short of American attitudes in freedom and “can-do”ness, but I think they’re way more inspirational than the more banal “engineering is applying math and science to solving problems.”

Now. An image change is probably a good plan. And all these messages are well and good per se. But they are moot if we don’t actually redefine engineering education to meet these messages. So, how can we work towards that?

I have a couple of posts scheduled around this topic over the next week or two, and I want to hear your thoughts (either here or as those posts pop up) about having a different conversation about engineering and engineering education, particularly around making a difference in designing for sustainability.


  1. #1 Gabriel
    June 24, 2008

    I’m linking this in my blog. Not my field, but would also like to understand what engineers do.

  2. #2 Dr. Jekyll & Mrs. Hyde
    June 25, 2008

    How about a picture of that bridge in Minnesota with caption: Got Enjineerz?

    (of course, that one’s more about infrastructure maintenance and politics, but I think the point would be taken.)

  3. #3 speedwell
    June 25, 2008

    I’ve been saying these things for years and the engineers I work with look at me like I’m a peacock in the chicken house. Of course, 42-year-old female database administrators are not supposed to talk that way about engineering.

    What is the chance I might be able to catch some crumbs falling off the table where the “promising young people” are being recruited? It’s really difficult to go back to school to finish my degree, let along get an engineering degree, right now when I have to work nonstop to pay the bills (which involves a fair amount of travel) and support an unemployed partner. I don’t see a way through and I don’t have any family and I could really use some help. Until then I guess I’ll just have to keep eating my heart out. (Sorry for the drama but I’m really feeling unusually frustrated about this.)

  4. #4 Donna
    June 26, 2008

    As hopeful as these messages are, I worry that there is some false advertising or “bait and switch” at work here.

    “Free to explore” sounds great, until you enroll in one of the most restrictive undergraduate curricula available.

    Sure you can change people’s lives in meaningful ways, but when the list of top engineering employers remarkably resembles the list of top defense contractors, “changing the world” may be a different project from what students originally had in mind.

    My point is that we have more than an image problem here. I’m not very optimistic that the new advertising can drive the changes in the profession needed to make these ideas a reality.

    At a minimum it would take the weight of all the professional societies and individual citizens both inside and outside of engineering lobbying for restructuring our national budget priorities, as well as a sea change in engineering education. I’d love to see that, but I’m not holding my breath.

  5. #5 Zuska
    June 26, 2008

    Yeah, I can just hear the old crusty types whining about how the current stuffy repressive weedout curriculum makes men out of the boys and we need to keep it. Probably some young crusty types, too.

    In terms of that “engineers connect science to the real world” biz…I had an interesting conversation with a non-engineer non-scientist today. Was wearing my MIT t-shirt and out at my favorite lunch place; the husband of the owner was sparked into conversation. Seems stepson is an engineer/scientist and he is very proud of him. He described him as “Very bright, able to do both the academic AND the real world stuff, you know the science and the engineering”. It was interesting to get that perception of the divide/relationship between science and engineering from a non-scientist/engineer.

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