Developing Effective Messages for Improving Public Understanding of Engineering

Project Status
July 15, 2011
National Science Foundation, Georgia Institute of Technology, and S.D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation
This study aimed to encourage coordinated, consistent, and effective communication by the engineering community about the role, importance, and career potential of engineering.
  • The study report, Changing the Conversation: Messages for Improving Public Understanding of Engineering, recommends that the engineering community begin using a set of tested messages in a coordinated communications strategy. Rather than emphasizing the need for skill in mathematics and science, the new messages emphasize how engineering makes a difference in people's lives.

Each year, the engineering community spends hundreds of millions of dollars to increase public understanding of engineering. However, most of these outreach efforts are ad hoc, local in scope, poorly coordinated, and not evaluated for effectiveness, according Changing the Conversation. The NAE report represents the first-ever effort to use market research techniques to improve the public image of the engineering profession. 

Changing the Conversation presents and discusses findings from qualitative and quantitative research, including an online survey of 3,600 people, both adults and children. In addition to testing the appeal, believability, and relevance of a handful of different messages, the project also collected data on a set of taglines, or slogans. Because African Americans and Hispanics are underrepresented in engineering schools and careers, the survey included large numbers of both groups. Although there were some minor differences in people’s views of engineering based on race, by far the greatest differences were found between girls and boys and between adults and children.

The project confirmed other research showing that the public has a poor idea of what engineers actually do on a day-to-day basis; and there is a strong sense that engineering is not “for everyone,” and perhaps especially not for girls. Most current messages are framed to emphasize the strong links between engineering and just one of its attributes—the need for mathematics and science skills. In other words, current messages often ignore other vital characteristics of engineering, such as creativity, teamwork, and communication.

The four messages that emerged from the research and that the study committee urged the engineering community use are:

  • Engineers make a world of difference,
  • Engineers are creative problem-solvers,
  • Engineers help shape the future, and
  • Engineering is essential to our health, happiness, and safety.
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