Prism Magazine - Novmber 2001
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Last Word

- By Missy Cummings

The Media is the MEssage

I would in one fell swoop reach out to more young men and women
than I would over the rest of my academic career.

Last May, I was invited to be a judge for the cable television show “Junkyard Wars,” sponsored by The Learning Channel. “Junkyard Wars” is a dream show for an engineer. Two teams of four people are pitted against each other to build almost any machine or vehicle you can think of out of junk in only ten hours. “Junkyard Wars” is the American version of a British show called “Scrapheap Challenge,” and is entering its second season in the colonies. Not only is the show entertaining, it is also educational, especially when the hosts explain the basic physics and engineering principles behind the designs. As an instructor of the freshman engineering design and graphics course at Virginia Tech, I often referred to the show in class, using it to inspire creativity and imagination in my students who, for the most part, had little if any hands-on experience with mechanical devices prior to coming to Virginia Tech.

I was more than happy to accept the “Junkyard Wars” invitation. Not only am I a big fan of the show, I am also, as my colleagues have pointed out on numerous occasions, a media hog. Whenever my class projects, such as the edible car or egg-launcher, ended in competition, I made sure the local newspapers and TV stations covered the events. As a tenure-track professor, I realized what an important component outreach is for tenure, and being short on time just like every engineering professor, I hoped to kill two birds with one stone. A chance to be seen and heard on “Junkyard Wars” was an opportunity to reach many would-be engineers and show them that engineering is not just about abstract theories, but also involves teamwork and innovation. Plus it's just plain fun. With an audience of approximately 1.4 million, I would in one fell swoop reach more young men and women than I would over the rest of my academic career. I could not get to the studio in Los Angeles fast enough.

I was reminded of my “Junkyard Wars” experience and the power of the media at the recent ASEE national conference in Albuquerque. I, like many of my colleagues, was somewhat taken aback by plenary speaker Dean Kamen's charge that engineering professors are not pulling their weight when it comes to reaching out to primary and secondary students and trying to interest them in engineering careers. I know that personally I am overextended with commitments to the Girl Scouts, 4-H clubs, and engineering summer camps, all designed to attract a diverse group of men and women to engineering. And I am not alone and not special. All of my tenure-track colleagues are equally overextended. I agree with Mr. Kamen that this nation is at a critical crossroads in attracting bright young men and women into engineering. Although college engineering enrollments are up slightly, they will not meet the nation's need for technical workers in the future. I think almost all engineering professors are aware of the shortage of engineers, and most engineering professors I know are involved in outreach in some way. While Mr. Kamen's FIRST program is admirable, it is not the only engineering outreach program in the nation, and efforts by organizations like NSF, NEA, and ASEE should not be so cavalierly dismissed. The problem in attracting young men and women to engineering is not that engineering professors aren't committed to outreach, it is the dissemination of information—the publicity if you will—of just what engineers do and what programs are available.

We as engineering educators need to become smarter about using the media to represent us, not as geeky nerds who sit at a computer all day but as creative professionals on the cutting edge of technology. Engineers suffer from many undeserved stereotypes, and our field of expertise is not typically well represented in the media. There is no question that today's youth identify with the role models they are exposed to every day, whether it is in school or on television. The sad truth is, in either case, they are for the most part not exposed to engineers. Television shows like “Junkyard Wars” help to change this situation, but engineers, both in industry and academia, need to be more proactive in seeking out media opportunities to promote engineering. We must face the fact that to reach students, we must use the medium they are most familiar with—television. Local outreach programs are needed, but if the general public, and more important, primary and secondary schools, don't know what exciting engineering opportunities are available, we're not going to have enough engineers in the future.

Unfortunately, engineering professors typically have no training in public relations and marketing. I am fortunate because the public relations division of the Virginia Tech College of Engineering has good media contacts and is very aggressive in publicizing research projects and outreach efforts. Professors, engineering colleges across the nation, and industry need to learn on a much larger scale how to promote engineering as challenging, exciting, rewarding, and fun. Becoming media-hogs and building bridges with the media, including through educational programs like “Junkyard Wars,” is critical to attracting young people to the field.

Missy Cummings is currently on leave from Virginia Tech while she finishes her Ph.D. at the University of Virginia.