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U.S. economic strength, national security, and quality of life are to a great extent the result of the country’s long history of successful technological innovation, which relies greatly on engineering know-how. Polling and other research over the past decade has consistently shown that adults and children have a limited understanding of what engineers do and how engineering improves the world, and they view engineering as having less prestige than other professions, such as medicine, science, and teaching. Poor understanding of engineering has potentially serious consequences related to attracting young Americans—particularly women and under-represented minorities—into engineering-related careers and supporting the nation’s ability to maintain its capacity for technological innovation. This situation has raised serious concern among U.S. engineering colleges, industries and federal agencies that depend on engineering talent, K-12 educators, policy makers, and organizations whose missions including raising the general level of technological and scientific literacy.
One important contributor to poor public understanding of engineering is the manner in which the engineering community has historically presented itself to the public. The predominant messages have focused on the need for strong math and science skills or touted the field’s career potential. And few engineering-related organizations have utilized the expertise of marketing professionals in their outreach. A 2008 NAE report, Changing the Conversation: Messages for Improving Public Understanding of Engineering, presents a small set of new messages for engineering developed using qualitative and quantitative research methods. These messages recast engineering as inherently creative and concerned with human welfare, as well as an emotionally satisfying calling.
The report has stimulated considerable interest among segments of the engineering community, and some organizations have adopted the project’s messages in their outreach. Overall, however, the report’s impact has fallen short of its potential to galvanize action by the broader engineering community. This project is intended to remedy that situation by 1) produce an online messaging resource (“toolkit”) for use by the engineering community, 2) sponsor a high-level stakeholders’ workshop to develop support for a coordinated, national messaging campaign, and 3) publish an “Action Plan” containing strategic and tactical recommendations for how the engineering community can most effectively promote a more positive and accurate image of engineering.
Read more from a Stakeholder Workshop that was held in November 2010. Read the Summer 2011 issue of The Bridge on Changing the Conversation about Engineering.