We’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.