Changing the Conversation

March 24, 2009

According to a study by the National Academy of Engineering (NAE) hundreds of millions of dollars are spent each year to improve the public’s understanding of engineering. Despite this investment, most Americans still don’t know what engineers do. This failure was the basis for another NAE report titled “Changing the Conversation.”

To discuss the implications of the report, representatives from each of the major engineering societies were invited to Washington, DC, for a special forum during Engineers Week. As a member of ASCE’s Committee on Pre-College Outreach, I had the opportunity to join in the discussion.

“Changing the Conversation” focuses on the messages that appear most likely to improve the public’s understanding of engineering. It begins with the following position statement, which was proposed as a guide for future conversations about the profession.

No profession unleashes the spirit of innovation like engineering. From research to real-world applications, engineers constantly discover how to improve our lives by creating bold new solutions that connect science to life in unexpected, forward-thinking ways. Few professions turn so many ideas into so many realities. Few have such a direct and positive effect on people’s everyday lives. We are counting on engineers and their imaginations to help us meet the needs of the 21st century.

Most engineers would consider this statement to be a suitable mantra for describing their place in society. Unfortunately, public perception of the engineering profession is not in keeping with this lofty self-image. According to studies referenced in the report, “engineers are not perceived to be as engaged with societal and community concerns or to play as great a role in saving lives as Scientists (Table 1). And when the relative prestige of all professions is tallied, engineering falls in the middle of the pack, well below medicine, nursing, science, and teaching (Table 2).”

Table 1 – Comparative Characteristics Associated with Engineers and Scientists

Engineers Scientists
Saves lives 14% 82%
Is sensitive to societal concerns 28% 61%
Cares about the community 37% 51%

Table 2 – Percent of Americans Who Rate Selected Professions as Having “Very Great Prestige”

Firefighter 63%
Doctor 58%
Teacher 52%
Farmer 36%
Engineer 34%
Member of Congress 28%
Architect 27%
Lawyer 21%
Real Estate Agent 6%

Although engineers may intuitively want people to have a more accurate and positive impression of their work, there are a number of reasons why engineers should be concerned with these findings. For one, the public discourse and democratic process could be enhanced if citizens understood more about the practice of engineering. Secondly, businesses and individuals could make better decisions when purchasing technological products and seeking technical consulting. Finally, improved public understanding of engineering could also maintain the nation’s capacity for technological innovation.

To begin addressing these concerns, it seems obvious that the engineering community needs to adopt a consistent message about what engineering is. The NAE report used focus group research and statistical studies of students and educators to propose a few well-constructed messages.

The most appealing message was found to be “engineers make a world of difference.” Perhaps surprisingly, the message that “engineering connects science to the real world” was found to be the least personally relevant to almost all demographics.

Whereas messages offer a complete sentence that clearly articulates a brand promise, a tagline is a short phrase that creates an image in the consumer’s mind. The most appealing taglines were found to be “turning ideas into reality” and “because dreams need doing.”

What message has the engineering profession been giving students and educators? Thinking back on your personal experience, do you remember hearing that “engineers are people who love math and science” and who have to “study harder than others in college?” Are those messages consistent with your experiences? Although popularly held views like these were not tested by the study, we can infer from the results that engineers should be promoting the social benefits of our work and not the debatably arduous journey to join the profession.

ASCE is among the leaders in integrating suitable messages into its outreach resources. A great example is the recently launched Web site for kids, www.asceville.org. Log on to explore an interactive environment that we hope will inspire the next generation of civil engineers. There’s also a page where engineers, educators, and parents can download brochures and activity guides – all designed to present the right messages.

You can continue the conversation by downloading the entire NAE report at http://books.nap.edu/catalog/12187.html or checking out ASCE’s latest outreach materials online.


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