In This Issue
Summer Issue of The Bridge on Changing the Conversation about Engineering
June 27, 2011 Volume 41 Issue 2

Engineering a Change in Perception: Engineer Your Life and Design Squad

Monday, June 27, 2011

Author: Marisa Wolsky

WGBH is using the multimedia resources of two major projects to engage young people in innovative ways.

In an address to the National Academy of Sciences on April 29, 2009, President Obama challenged his listeners: “I want us all to think about new and creative ways to engage young people in science and engineering…I want you to know that I’m going to be working alongside you. I’m going to participate in a public awareness and outreach campaign to encourage students to consider careers in science and mathematics and engineering—because our future depends on it” (White House, 2009).

Considering that the percentage of students graduating with engineering degrees has been declining steadily (NSF, 2006), especially among women and minorities (in 2007, only 12 percent of bachelor’s degrees in engineering were awarded to black and Hispanic students, and just 19 percent were awarded to women [NSB, 2010]), a great deal of work must be done to meet the president’s challenge.

WGBH has taken the first steps by developing messages that promote a positive image of engineering and delivering these messages to engage young people in innovative ways through the multimedia resources of two projects—Engineer Your Life (EYL) and Design Squad. Both projects have had a significant impact on girls and boys from a broad range of backgrounds.

The Importance of Messaging

Imagine you are thinking about buying your first home, and a house with a “For Sale” sign catches your attention. The real estate agent tells you the house will require time-consuming repairs, the rooms are small, the price is too high, convenient public transportation is not available, and so on. Would you make an appointment to see that house? Probably not.

Now imagine you are a high school student thinking about studying engineering. You talk to the only engineer you know, and he says you will have to excel in math and science, take some of the toughest courses the school offers, and so on. Would you choose engineering as your college major? Probably not.

The first scenario is fictional, but sadly, the second occurs every day all over the country. When it comes to engineering, as cartoonist Walt Kelly’s Pogo once observed, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”

After years of debate and sporadic, poorly coordinated attempts to attract youngsters, the engineering community realized that damaging, negative stereotypes about engineering would not change unless the community presented more positive, appealing images of the engineering profession and the individuals who work in it. Support for that fundamental understanding was based on a recent report by the National Academy of Engineering (NAE) Changing the Conversation (CTC) Initiative. Among the recommendations in Changing the Conversation: Messages for Improving Public Understanding of Engineering was a call for a coordinated national awareness campaign using messaging to change public attitudes toward and understanding of engineering (NAE, 2008).

Addressing the Challenge

In response to calls for action by President Obama, NAE, and others, the WGBH Educational Foundation undertook two major projects, EYL and Design Squad, to put the recommendations from the CTC report into practice. So far, the results have been very encouraging.

EYL, which is produced by the WGBH Educational Foundation with major support from the National Science Foundation (NSF), is a national messaging campaign designed to change stereotypes about engineering and engineers. With carefully developed, meticulously tested messages, EYL reaches out to high school girls through a multimedia website ( and a large social networking presence. (Although the target audience is mainly high school girls, we know anecdotally that boys also visit the website.) The project also provides advice and resources for parents, counselors, college recruiters, and engineering professionals on communicating with young people about engineering careers.

Tackling the engineering image problem is also the driving mission behind EYL’s sister project, Design Squad. Funded by NSF and numerous engineering foundations and corporations, Design Squad is a Peabody- and Emmy-Award winning PBS reality competition show. On each episode, two teams of teenagers design and build projects for real clients—such as cardboard furniture for IKEA, hockey net targets for the Boston Bruins, and low-cost peanut butter machines for a women’s collective in Haiti.

A spin-off television series, Design Squad Nation, brings the excitement of the original show to children in the United States and around the globe. In 10 episodes, engineer co-hosts work side-by-side with children to turn their dreams into reality. Design Squad Nation shows that engineers, who are often pictured as working alone in laboratories or on computers, are active in the real world, take risks, collaborate with interesting people, and using science, math, and technology to solve real problems.

The following sections describe how messaging developed to change engineering stereotypes has been incorporated into the multimedia components of both projects, the impact of this messaging, and what we have yet to learn about inspiring children and keeping them going along the pathway to engineering careers.

The Art of Delivering Messages

As advertisers know, effective messages are powerful tools that can change attitudes and behaviors, whether the target audience is smokers, voters, or buyers. In the case of EYL, the target group is high-school girls, and the goal is to change a legacy of exclusion, or perceived exclusion.

In 2004, members of the engineering community, led by WGBH and the American Society of Civil Engineers, formed the Extraordinary Women Engineers (EWE) coalition to investigate why high school girls, who take math and science classes at the same rate (or higher) as boys and perform as well as or better than their male peers (EWE, 2005), do not choose to study engineering. Members of the coalition included NAE; the National Society of Black Engineers; Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers; Purdue University School of Engineering; University of Texas, San Antonio, School of Engineering; and Construction Management Association of America.

Extensive research conducted by the EWE coalition revealed that, in general, girls do not understand what engineering is or what engineers do, but, nevertheless, think it’s “not for them.” Many girls described engineering as a “man’s profession” and said they had received little or no encouragement to consider engineering careers (EWE, 2005).

Perhaps more surprising, the coalition found that engineers often unintentionally portray their profession and themselves in a negative light. Instead of describing the benefits, rewards, and social value of being an engineer, they stress the importance of superior math and science skills (EWE, 2005). As a result, most girls perceive engineering as a club for boys with a big “Do Not Enter” sign on the door.

In short, the research showed that the way engineers talk about their profession does not align with girls’ motivations and career aspirations. Once that became clear, WGBH decided to enlist two market research firms, BBMG and Global Strategy Group, to develop and test various messages that would resonate with girls, as well as with boys. (These two firms also crafted the positioning statement, messages, and taglines for the CTC project.)

Engineer Your Life

The four messages that tested strongest for EYL were:

  • Live your life, love what you do. Engineering will challenge you to turn dreams into realities while giving you the chance to travel, work with inspiring people, and give back to your community.
  • Creativity has its rewards. Women engineers are respected, recognized, and financially rewarded for their innovative thinking and creative solutions.
  • Make a world of difference. From small villages to big cities, organic farms to mountaintops, deep-sea labs to outer space, women engineers are going where there is the greatest need and making a lasting contribution.
  • Explore possibilities. Women engineers often use their skills to go into business, medicine, law, or government. An engineering education will prepare you for many different careers.

These messages have become the basis of EYL’s national campaign to make girls aware that engineering is exciting, meaningful, and definitely worth considering as a career. The centerpiece of the campaign is the EYL website (—which provides resources for high school girls and their “influencers” (parents, counselors, teachers, and informal educators) about living and working as an engineer.

Figure 1

Highlights include video profiles of young women engineers (Figure 1), descriptions of interesting engineering jobs, and 10 great reasons to become an engineer. EYL’s social networking channels include posts and discussions on six different Facebook fan pages—EYL, Creativity, Making a Difference, Dream Jobs, Design, and The Engineer’s Pledge. EYL also provides training sessions to ensure that thousands of engineers and educators know how to talk about engineering posi-tively, and effectively, to girls.

EYL has a very broad reach because of the work of its 107 coalition members, who use the project’s tested messages in their programming and outreach efforts. Coalition members include all EWE members, as well as other engineering and educational organizations, colleges and universities, and corporations (e.g., 3M, DuPont, Intel, Lockheed Martin Corporation, National Girls Collaborative Project, Science Buddies, and Coalition for Science Afterschool).

Design Squad

Design Squad reinforces and advances the impact of EYL’s messaging by promoting the messages through all of its multimedia resources. Since Design Squad premiered in 2007, 46 half-hour episodes and 24 short career profiles of engineers have been produced. In addition, an interactive website ( features streaming video, a multiplayer game (FIDGIT), and an online community of innovators who have contributed more than 65,000 ideas for engineering projects.

To extend its educational value beyond broadcasting, Design Squad has conducted 157 training sessions for 6,011 engineers and educators and 453 events and workshops across the country. These sessions feature hands-on engineering activities in which 184,558 children and families have participated (Figure 2). Ninety-one engineering and educational organizations have become formal partners, and 18,804 youth-serving organizations and schools have used Design Squad’s educational materials, which include six educator’s guides that provide step-by-step directions and leader’s notes for 36 activities.

Figure 2

Design Squad series’ hosts, who personify the varied, interesting, and inspiring lives of engineers, consistently convey their excitement about engineering. Nate Ball, for example, is a 20-something pole vaulter, jazz pianist, mechanical engineer, grandmaster beatboxer, and co-inventor on six patent applications. His inventions include the Atlas Ascender, a rope-climbing device that enables workers to reverse-rappel at incredibly high speeds for use in search and rescue operations and a refrigeration backpack that can carry massive doses of vaccine to rural areas that have no electric power.

The new co-host of Design Squad Nation, mechanical engineer Judy Lee, describes her “dream job” as a product designer at IDEO, an international design and innovation firm in Palo Alto, where she works on a wide range of projects—from children’s toys to medical devices to clean water systems for slums in Kenya—and tests products to ensure their safety. Judy has also been profiled on EYL and NOVA’s Secret Life of Scientists and Engineers Web series (Figure 3).

Figure 3

Judy’s co-host, Adam Vollmer (also a mechanical engineer at IDEO) is a living example of an engineer with a variety of interests outside his work. He builds his own bicycles, climbs mountains, and explores remote corners of the world. Design Squad’s 24 short video profiles introduce viewers to other young engineers who show that engineering is a rewarding, creative career that provides opportunities for working with great people, solving interesting problems, and designing things that matter.

Design Squad also provides peer role models for viewers. Contestants and clients from a variety of racial, ethnic, and socio-economic backgrounds address challenges that are not only creative, exciting, and personally fulfilling, but that also make a difference in the lives of others (e.g., designing functional clothing or remote-controlled aquatic pet-rescue vehicles for the New Orleans Fire Department). Moreover, they expose kids to real-world applications of science and math concepts, showing how engineering touches everyday lives and connects with many other careers (e.g., technology, business, art, and fashion).

One strong message promoted by Design Squad in all of its resources is that engineers work collaboratively. Focusing on technology, which facilitates collaboration, Design Squad recently created a user-generated content platform and online community where children can share projects, see what others have made, and share their thoughts and reactions. The messages are clear: You are creative and can solve problems. You can make things that help people. We want you to join Design Squad Nation. Let’s dream big. Let’s build something together!

Like EYL, Design Squad provides educational resources and training for adults who work with kids. Educator’s guides for informal and formal educators (many of whom do not have backgrounds in engineering) provide guidelines and exercises for teaching design skills in afterschool settings and simply talking to kids about engineering.

Face-to-face training sessions have given engineers—many of whom have little experience working with kids—tips on group management and communicating enthusiasm for engineering. (“Tell them your favorite thing about being an engineer. Is it working with people? Is it seeing your ideas and creations come to life? If you share this with kids, you’ll give them a whole new perspective on engineering.”)

Motivational Messages

Summative data demonstrate how changing the way engineering is presented influences children. An independent evaluation conducted by Concord Evaluation Group revealed a perceptible increase among girls exposed to EYL’s website and messages in the level of interest in the field of engineering, in using math and science in their future careers, and in doing the kind of work engineers do (Veridian inSight, 2009).

  • Girls familiar with EYL were significantly more likely to report that they wanted to be engineers (78.8 percent) than girls who were not familiar with EYL (57.3 percent).
  • Girls familiar with EYL were significantly more likely to believe that imagination and creativity and good people skills, writing skills, and public speaking were important to engineering than were girls who were not familiar with EYL.
  • Almost all of the girls who viewed the website indicated that it helped them learn about engineering (95.3 percent) and gave them a better understanding of how to prepare for an engineering career.
  • Girls indicated that the website had made them more interested in engineering as a career (87.9 percent) and inspired them to take an engineering class in college (75.5 percent).

Evaluations have also shown that Design Squad has a significant impact on children’s understanding of engineering and attitudes toward engineering. After watching just four episodes of Design Squad, children were significantly more likely to agree with three statements about the work engineers do: (1) engineers help make people’s lives better, (2) engineers solve problems that affect real people, and (3) engineers sometimes have to test their work and start over again.

Children’s negative stereotypes also decreased significantly. After watching four episodes of the program, fewer children agreed that engineering is boring or that men are better than women at engineering. In addition, children’s design process skills improved, and they demonstrated a good understanding of the science and engineering concepts presented in the programs (Goodman Research Group, 2008).

In a subsequent study, students exposed to Design Squad’s hands-on engineering activities in afterschool environments showed a significant improvement in their understanding of the engineering design process after the activities; their leaders showed similar improvement (Veridian inSight, 2009).

Figure 4

Finally, Design Squad was also found to be effective in formal school environments (Figure 4). Compared to a control group, children exposed to Design Squad in middle school science classrooms demonstrated significant gains in understanding key science concepts and showed improvement in their attitudes toward engineering (Concord Evaluation Group, 2010).

Future Research

EYL and Design Squad have shown that messaging can work. However, we still do not completely understand how messages interact with other contextual, social, and intra-personal factors to prompt young women into action (i.e., to enroll in an engineering program). We will need a deeper understanding of how messaging influences career decisions to significantly increase the participation of women and other underrepresented groups in engineering.

To that end, EYL, in collaboration with Clemson University and National Engineers Week Foundation (with support from Concord Evaluation Group), hopes to undertake a study to collect qualitative data about young women’s career expectations and the factors that influence them. Knowledge gained from this study will have a direct impact on our understanding of how images and messages can awaken a young woman’s interest and influence her career decisions. This knowledge will also help inform institutions of higher education about the potential role (positive or negative) of messages in college and university recruitment strategies.

To improve understanding of how seeds of engineering interest are sown, nurtured, and developed during a student’s formative years, Design Squad hopes to conduct a study on informal pathways to engineering. Using social cognitive career theory, the study would show how informal engineering programs can sustain children’s interest and participation in engineering and provide a more nuanced picture of the kinds of children most receptive to informal engineering education. The study would also have a larger goal—to provide a template for other informal engineering programs to assess students’ reactions and to provide data for comparing results.

To maximize the impact of this study, WGBH, Concord Evaluation Group, and Purdue University have formed strategic partnerships with Project Lead the Way, Girl Scouts of the USA, National Engineers Week Foundation, National Girls Collaborative Project, FIRST, International Technology and Engineering Educators Association, and Association of Science-Technology Centers. These groups will weigh in on questions about the overall design of the study and review the test instruments to ensure that they are appropriate for middle-school children.

Once this study is completed, WGBH will encourage all partners in the study to use the resulting research tools in their own organizations to help determine which aspects of the informal engineering education system work best and how different parts of the system can work together more effectively.


Based on our work with EYL and Design Squad, we now understand that messaging can have a positive impact on children’s attitudes. But to take the next step, we must learn how this can ultimately translate into changes in behavior, with the ultimate goal of smoothing the way from a student’s initial awareness of engineering to his or her career as a professional engineer.


Concord Evaluation Group LLC. 2010. Evaluation of Design Squad, Season 3: Final Report. Concord, Mass.

EWE (Extraordinary Women Engineers Coalition). 2005. Final Report. Boston, Mass.: EWE.

Goodman Research Group Inc. 2008. Design Squad: Final Evaluation Report. Cambridge, Mass.

NAE (National Academy of Engineering). 2008. Changing the Conversation: Messages for Improving Public Understanding of Engineering. Washington, D.C.: National Academies Press.

NSB (National Science Board). 2010. Science and Engineering Indicators 2010. Arlington, Va.: National Science Foundation.

NSF (National Science Foundation). 2006. Science and Engineering Degrees: 1966–2004. Arlington, Va.: Division of Science Resources Statistics, NSF.

Veridian inSight. 2009. Engineer Your Life Evaluation Report for Year 2. Concord, Mass.

Veridian inSight and American Institutes for Research. 2009. Design Squad Season 2 Final Evaluation Report. Concord, Mass.

White House. 2009. Remarks by the President at the National Academy of Sciences Annual Meeting. Washington, D.C.: The White House.

About the Author:Marisa Wolsky is executive producer at WGBH Educational Foundation.