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Hype or Help?

Popular media may foster teens’ unrealistic expectations about engineering.

By Kok-Sing Tang

According to the National Academy of Engineering, poor public understanding of what engineers do is undermining adolescents’ interest in engineering. In a 2008 report entitled “Changing the Conversation,” NAE outlined several market-tested messages designed to broaden the profession’s appeal. Though the use of magazines and other popular media was acknowledged as key to reaching a diverse audience, no in-depth study has been conducted into the nature and impact of these media. Thus, researchers currently know very little about the kind of messages being generated about engineering and whether they complement, contradict, or are consistent with the main messages in “Changing the Conversation.”

To address this gap, my study examined out-of-school texts such as magazines, websites, and TV shows that were read or watched by a group of U.S. public high school students. Using multimodal (e.g., linguistic, visual) discourse analysis, I looked at 65 out-of-school texts selected by the students on the basis of their understanding of the texts’ relevance to science and technology. Supporting this textual analysis, I also conducted and analyzed a series of interviews with eight students to determine how their selected texts influenced their knowledge of and disposition toward engineering.

The analyses revealed that out-of-school and engineering texts share many features in terms of representing content related to engineering practices. For instance, automobile magazines frequently illustrate complex technical systems in explaining a test car’s performance. The language and pictorial representations are similar to those found in typical engineering texts. Comparing a Motor Trend article on the Ferrari F430 Scuderia with a chapter from an automobile engineering textbook, I showed that both texts use similar semantic and rhetorical structure in language, power/torque versus revolutions-per-minute graphs, and computational fluid dynamics images. Popular television series such as Mythbusters, which examines lore from a Ming dynasty astronaut to food safety, also contained several readily identified features relevant to engineering inquiry. One of the show’s common themes, for example, highlights the iterative problem-solving process the television hosts follow as they design, build, and test prototypes. Student interviews revealed that such features in out-of-school texts can shape their ideas of engineering and arouse their desire and curiosity to learn how some things work.

However, there also are significant differences in how content is represented by media professionals who produced most of the out-of-school texts. For instance, while auto magazines may include features that introduce students to some facet of engineering, they ultimately portray cars as a materialistic consumer item as opposed to an engineered product that involves precise scientific knowledge, systematic inquiry, and extensive collaboration in its design and development. These differences show up in the way engineers use representations — language and images, for example — as tools to guide their design and problem-solving work, while media professionals use representations rhetorically to generate emotional responses from readers and viewers. This contrast can contravene current efforts to improve public understanding of engineering, since adolescents may develop expectations of the field based on slick or exciting examples they have seen in everyday media. Teens also may gain certain preferences for how engineering content should be presented – as narrative, suspenseful, showy, and trendy.

Recognizing the similarities and differences between out-of-school and engineering texts is important to our goal of understanding the impact and potential use of popular media to improve outreach. On one hand, knowing the similarities can support the use of popular media as an additional channel for engineering education and public communication. However, we should be cautious about fostering unrealistic expectations that students bring when they formally learn engineering in school.


Kok-Sing Tang is an assistant professor of science education at the National Institute of Education, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. This article is excerpted from “Out-of-School Media Representations of Science and Technology and Their Relevance for Engineering Learning” in the January 2013 issue of the Journal of Engineering Education

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