A Makeover for Engineering?

It seems that engineering needs a makeover. Well, perhaps makeover is the wrong word. The field of engineering, as represented by the National Academy of Engineering, would like to change the way the public perceives it. The report on the NAE website, written by Mitch Baranowski and James Delorey, addresses marketing techniques that can be used to improve public perception of engineering.

The casual reader might wonder why the NAE is pushing for a change at all. Are engineers sick of being seen as geeky introverts? It turns out that geekiness is not the problem. According to Baranowski and Delorey, the public generally perceives that successful engineering is based on good math and science skills and hard work. Additionally, engineering is seen as a creative field that makes a positive impact on people’s day-to-day lives by allowing for the designing, building, and constructing of things. This seems to be both an accurate and fairly positive view of engineering. Thus, it gives little insight into why the field would require a different image.

The big issue, according to the report, is that young people do not display an interest in engineering. In part, the authors postulate, this results from the under-appreciation of the important work that engineers have done in the past and continue to do. Additionally, there is no famous personality to associate with the field. This is not shocking, but public perception of scientists is surprisingly positive in comparison. While over half the population from a 2004 survey shown in the report considered scientists to be “sav[ing] lives,” “sensitive to societal concerns,” and “car[ing] about the community,” well under half of the population felt the same way about engineers. In fact, as shown in the report, the prestige of scientists rates under just 3 other listed professions (firefighter, doctor, and nurse). However, engineering is 10th on the list, below priest and farmer. Engineering, like certain physical sciences, has a particularly difficult time recruiting “under-represented” populations. If science is seen as much more prestigious, promising candidates from under-represented groups may become scientists rather than engineers. More critically, the NAE expresses concern that there will not be enough engineers someday soon.

I am always dubious when a field aims to to “hook” young people using marketing. Doesn’t marketing gloss over the unpleasant truth to make the targeted career seem great? What happens when someone enters that field believing the illusions presented by clever marketers? It’s possible that some people will be “hooked” who do not have the abilities or skills necessary to perform adequately in that career. Others might leave once they become disillusioned with a career that is not what they thought it would be. According to Baranowski and Delorey, these are some of the flaws that exist in messages that have been presented to children and perspective college students in the past. A major theme has been that math and science (the requisite skills to be come an effective engineer) are fun and easy, which is, at best, true for only a small percentage of the population. The other major theme has been that engineering is an exciting career with many options and much flexibility. This is the sort of message that is likely to lead to worn out, disillusioned young engineers.

Instead, the report suggests that the message should focus on the necessity of engineering and what engineers do in an abstract sense. In this vein, the two tag-lines presented are “because dreams need doing” and “turning ideas into reality.” These themes seem harmless enough, especially when considered alongside the recommendation to avoid trivializing the necessity and potential difficulty of obtaining adequate math and science skills. Perhaps I need to be less suspicious of career marketing.

On the other hand, the outsourcing of engineering work has become a real concern. If other countries produce enough engineers to do the work at much lower prices, perhaps it is a mistake to encourage young people to go into engineering. If the field is likely to have lower wages and more competition for jobs, more engineers will just make the problem more severe. This question was addressed in the Chronicle of Higher Education recently in the article, “Holistic Engineering” by Dominico Grasso and David Martinelli. Grasso and Martinelli argue that producing an interdisciplinary sort of engineer who focuses on broad, unified knowledge, rather than engineering detail, could solve this problem. The idea is that “21st century engineer[s]” could outsource some detail-oriented, highly technical tasks while focusing on the broader problem at hand. These new engineers would draw on knowledge from fields as diverse as religion and literature in addition to the sciences. They could develop better, more visionary solutions by unifying their diverse knowledge and applying it to engineering problems.

Unfortunately Grasso and Martinelli do not give specific details on how a university or college might educate and train such an engineer, nor do they give a clear idea of what sort of solutions might be found. The interesting point, to me, is the concurrence of the article on the holistic engineer with the report calling for a new image for engineering. Perhaps the kind of engineer Grasso and Marinelli call for is the sort of engineer Baranowski and Delorey are trying to recruit. While I remain a little skeptical of marketing the field of engineering and unclear on what exactly a holistic engineer could do or how to train her, I am intrigued by the future of engineering that might arise from such changes to the field.


11 Responses to A Makeover for Engineering?

  1. Dana says:

    This is really interesting stuff, Sarah. The idea of the holistic engineer strikes me as a move back to the origins of science, where the big minds in natural philosophy had far too many interests to bother to focus on one particular thing. I’ve had an issue with the specialization required by most university schooling, particularly grad school, for a while.

    As for people having less appreciation for engineers than they should, you’d have liked the tour I took my last day in London. It was the “Eccentric London” tour, and it started and ended with the guide talking about one of her great heroes, Joseph Bazelgette, the original designer of the London sewer system, back in the 1860s. His original sewer lines are still in use. Let’s hear it for engineers!

    I wonder if we can start a list of famous engineers (or at least engineers who should be famous)? Anyone else got one?

  2. Mark says:


    I seem to remember reading not too terribly long ago that while the number of engineering graduates in a number of other countries, most notably India and China, were expanding rapidly, they were not keeping up with the dynamic rates of growth in their own domestic economies. If anything, the world faces a growing shortfall of engineers, at least according to the NPR story I heard.

    There is also a strong argument to be made, at least at first glance, for the concept of turning American engineers into top-level, highly trained holistic knowledge workers. This would enable us to outsource the “repetitive” parts of engineering to people who are able to do it for a lot less expense. I’m not sure how this works, at an implementation level, but I agree that the concept is interesting. Sort of like a much more carefully trained version of Matt’s beloved Mechanical Turk (What does the curvature of this particular beam need to be? I dunno, I’m just the ideas engineer. Feed it into the math-o-matic!).

  3. Sarah says:

    Dana, I can think of two famous engineers off the top of my head: Thomas Edison and Alexander Grahm Bell. While they may have done some science as well, they are most famous for their feats of engineering.

  4. Sarah says:

    I am always hearing in the news about the imminent shortfall of engineers and scientists. It may be true. However, I also know that in the field of physics, what is really meant by “shortfall” is that not enough students are taking physics courses to justify the increase in faculty required by all the graduates they produce. On the other hand, engineers graduating with bachelor’s degrees are very sought-after in the job market, so that may speak to a real deficit in the number produced. I certainly think it would be more entertaining to be the ideas engineer than the beam-curvature engineer, but I wonder how many ideas engineers we would need in proportion to calculation engineers..

  5. goshawk says:

    I think the imminent shortfall of engineers has been alleviated by the many corporate decisions not to manufacture things in this country any more. There really aren’t many new jobs for engineers in manufacturing these days. I know of several automation engineers who are doing other things now because they couldn’t find a job in their speciality. The same thing is true for petroleum engineers, most of the work is in the middle east or asia, not here in the US.

    I think the reasons we are not graduating as many engineers as some people think we need are: 1) it is really hard to get through the undergraduate program in engineering, 2) many kids are graduating from HS without the necessary background in math and science to be succesful in an engineering program and 3) there is an anti-intellectual attitude in the country today that tells kids that going into math, science or engineering isn’t the thing to do. Reason 3 probably has something to do with reason 2.

    The engineers coming out of the good engineering schools are still first rate and I don’t really think we need to overhaul the engineering education system. Engineers graduating from US Universities have good interdisceplinary skills and knowledge and are frequently doing the coordination work with engineers in other countries. There is no problem doing that if you are making Ipods or video games. But, if you are making a bridge or a building then you need an engineer who has been licensed by the state so you don’t put peoples lives in danger. The system we have now works pretty well for that.

    The engineer I would through into the discussion of famous engineers is Mr. Backus, the IBM guy who thought of the idea for FORTRAN (the first real programing language), convinced IBM to let him do it and then hired a diverse team of really smart people and directed their efforts to completion. He isn’t famous, but he should be. He died recently, but his programming language is still in use.

  6. B Barron says:

    I would add RADM Grace Hopper for consideration. Although she was awarded a Ph.D in mathematics, she served as an Engineering Research Fellow at Havard. Like Mr. Backus, she was a mainframe programming pioneer and from all accounts quite a character.

  7. eiffelover says:

    In Britain, we have in recent years had difficulty encouraging students to choose engineering at university. The drop in applications has risen again since its low point in 2002, nevertheless the ICE (Institute of Civil Engineers) is looking to boost numbers. Last year’s President, Gordon Masterton, launched a prize for anyone who was able to raise the profile of engineers in the media. He sited statisitics showing a dramatic increase in applications to pathology courses every time the BBC shows a series of “Silent Witness” (you guessed it, the heroine is a forensic pathologist). He told us that he was looking, for example, for someone to write a screenplay for a tv series in which the lead character is an engineer, or for a pop band to write a song about engineering. Anything for a bit of profile raising. (I will try and find out who won the dosh).

    On the contrary, here in France, they don’t have any problem recruiting onto engineering courses because engineering is such a highly respected profession. This, in my view, has a lot to do with the high regard with which maths and the sciences are held at school. In fact, there is an assumption that if you are going to be successful, you have to study maths and sciences intensively, at least for a few years: after that you can have a pop at any other subject you like.

    The question of out-sourcing is an interesting one. I agree that the engineer of the future will be less involved with the detailed calculations and will have a more global view of the project drawing on not just the sciences but on the arts (as suggested on this page). However, this is not because of the prediction that more and more of the calculations will be out-sourced. To suggest as much is to suggest that the very capable engineers in the countries to which the work is being out-sourced couldn’t themselves have a more global view, and not least a different global view based ona different set of culture references. No, the ‘Global View Engineer’ is born from the fact that more and more calculations can be carried out by computer.

    The civil engineering department at Imperial College, London has recently announced plans to remodel is course strucutre. It is apparent that they too have an idea of a more global-view professional engineer that they want to produce (see “massive changes for undergrads” at http://live.cgcu.net/editions/livic sorry, i don’t know how to insert hyperlinks into comments)

    Finally, a few famous engineers
    Britain: Isambard Kingdom Brunel, George Stevenson, Thomas Telford, Joesph Paxton, Ove Arup, Peter Rice

    France: Gustav Eiffel, Fressynet (inventor of pre-stressed concrete), Navier (anything to do with bending and deflection), Peter Rice (he worked in both Britain and France)

    the list could go on and on…

  8. Eiffelover says:

    […] for engineers Friday March 23rd 2007, 2:41 pm Filed under: Engineering Interesting comment on Geek Buffet about a make-over for engineers in the States. I have tried to add a British and French take on […]

  9. […] <blockquote>The big issue, according to the report, is that young people do not display an interest in engineeri…. In part, the authors postulate, this results from the under-appreciation of the important work that engineers have done in the past and continue to do. Additionally, there is no famous personality to associate with the field.</blockquote> […]

  10. […] the differing perceptions of engineers Reading inel’s response to Sarah’s post about the future of engineering, I was interested when I read this bit: Young people in Silicon […]

  11. NSutkay says:

    I want to be a holistic engineer! I am a 21 year old male and I have been interested in holistic medicine for about five years now and have been told by every doctor I’ve been to that I should go into holistic medicine. While I’m interested in holistic practices i am not interested in working directly on people. I have always wanted to create things and come up with new ideas and was for a time thinking of being a video game designer and just recently was thinking of going into some kind of scientific field because I am obsessed with Nicola Tesla. So today I was thinking what kind of job would incorporate my love for holistic medicine and creating things. Holistic Engineer! I typed it into google and this is what came up. If there is any other info on how to become a holistic engineer I would be very interested in hearing it.

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