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FRONTIERS - by Mark Raleigh

Not a Household Name

Students can’t aspire to be engineers if they don’t know the meaning of the term.

Technical vocabulary can make engineering seem too complicated — a pursuit for geeks. - Mark RaleighPeople frequently ask me why I decided to pursue engineering in college. Simple – I didn’t want to be a forklift operator. Seriously, those were two paths that a career assessment suggested for me based on my personality and interests in high school. I had a clear vision of what a forklift operator did, but little desire to move crates for the rest of my life. Despite having only a faint notion of what engineers did for a living, I gave consideration to this unknown vocation out of an aversion to forklifts.

As it turns out, I was not alone. Many studies show that children and adults alike have no idea what engineers do, and their perceptions of engineering are often narrow or inaccurate. The National Academy of Engineering’s Changing the Conversation report, for instance, found that many students believe engineering work is sedentary, performed in isolation at the computer. Moreover, few enjoyed math and science enough to become engineers.

Why do so many people misunderstand engineering? One problem is vocabulary.

Consider how vocabulary limited how people thought in George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. In that fictitious totalitarian world, freedom and individualism were unthinkable simply because society lacked the language for these concepts. If children have no concept of engineering, how can they imagine becoming an engineer someday? It is easy for children to imagine being a teacher or a doctor because they regularly interact with them. But unless a student has an engineer in the family, most never encounter one. For many, the word engineer is likely to conjure up visions of a train conductor. Their incomplete understanding of engineer prevents them from seeing that engineers span a broad spectrum of problem solvers who bring exciting things into everyday life—from video-game systems to self-driving cars to lifesaving medical devices.

Once students become more aware of what engineering entails, the technical vocabulary of the field can yield the perception that it is too complicated — a pursuit reserved for geeks. In fact, most students I encounter cite their interest in math and science as their reason for majoring in engineering, though these interests could just as easily have led them to accounting or nursing. Does this imply that many students fall into engineering by chance?

Our vocabulary and perception of engineering are influenced by the mass media. Popular culture rarely puts engineering in the limelight, and when it does, engineers are not usually presented as heroes. How many TV shows have a character who’s an engineer? The list is short. Even The Big Bang Theory, arguably the current hit with the most love for technology, features a nerdy trio of physicist Ph.D.’s who routinely mock their engineer friend because he is seen as less intelligent, having only a master’s degree. Indeed, it is entertaining and profitable to parade the mundane facets of engineering, as evident in the cult classic Office Space.

The misinformation about engineers is problematic for society because the technical challenges of the 21st century demand fresh ideas and new approaches. We cannot expect our innovative potential to expand if we continue to recruit from the same pool of students who stumble into engineering. If the first time a student hears about engineering is during the college application process, then a number of creative students already may have missed the boat.

We cannot change how Hollywood casts the engineer, but professional engineers can be more visible to young students. Interacting with a real engineer might make it easier for youngsters to add engineer to their vocabulary. Elementary school students should have the opportunity to meet a diverse group of engineers, to learn what excites them and what their jobs entail. There is growing interest in introducing young students to engineering, through programs like the Boston Museum of Science’s Engineering is Elementary program and the Future City Competition. While these are steps in the right direction, more involvement is needed. It is an engineer’s duty to serve the public interest, so it behooves all engineers to define the word engineer in the public’s vocabulary.


Mark Raleigh is a doctoral candidate in civil and environmental engineering at the University of Washington.


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