Engineering parents don’t tell their kids to study engineering for lots of reasons. One of the biggest reasons is that they don’t understand what engineers do. There aren’t really any television shows that explain it. It’s not sexy enough for Hollywood. There really just isn’t much information to the general public unless they are looking for it. I know I didn’t have much access to this info before seeking it out. And I know how it feels to have people nicely shake their heads and smile when I explain what I do at parties.
So I’ve decided part 2 of the “What the world needs” series here will be more references to engineering in popular culture. It can be advertising in any form (as in “Any press is good press”). People talking about engineering and what the heck they do might inspire some to go out and find out more. They might start reading blogs about engineering (dream on Chris). How might this stuff get into the mainstream? Well, comics of course! And no, not Dilbert. I choose XKCD for my mainstream weapon of choice. If you have never read the site, I insist that you go there immediately and read as many backlogged comics as possible. The author has a great grasp of mathematics, science, love and life. Bringing focus onto engineering/science/nerdy culture can only do good things for the profession and encouraging kids to explore if they would enjoy the work.
A note about the comics on XKCD, always be sure to mouse over the comics to get the “hidden message” which extends the sarcasm and awesomeness of the comic itself. Without further ado, my new favorite XKCD:
(If you don’t quite get it, current is defined in the opposite direction of how electrons actually flow thanks to Ben Franklin. This can get REALLY confusing when working with electronics, but eventually you learn to deal with it. Eventually.)
I quite enjoy this series. Well written; good job.
I think the biggest reason that people in general don’t understand engineering is that the general public don’t really need to deal with one. Contrast this to other professions. Sick? Call a doctor. Someone rear-ended your car? See a lawyer. IRS after you? Call your accountant (and then call your lawyer). Kids failing in school? Call the teacher. House needs remodelling? Call the general contractor. Who needs to call an engineer? Even when poorly engineered products break down, who the do public call? Your car? Call the mechanic. Your PC? Call the customer service in India.
I’m a member of the Professional Engineers Ontario and a few years ago, they did an ad blitz informing the public of the role of engineering. It was on TV. It was on radio. The problem with such high-cost high-profile campaigns is that the effect is transitory. Unless the PR campaign goes on for years and years, it’s not going to stick. And what practising engineer want his annual dues to be spent on slick PR advertising (not me!).
BTW, I went back and read your post on What is an Engineer. I was thinking of a post with that exact title, but mine would have been much more self-loathing, in keeping with my much more jaded view of my profession. But I think I’ll drop that idea now since yours is much better than anything I could have come up with.
Chris Gammell says
Ah Flux, you’ll come around eventually. Optimism is the only way to go, in any part of our lives. Plus, you and me? We ARE the ad blitz campaign for engineering (with a few other blogs out there).
I love the comic. Also, I think that engineers don’t get the word out about their careers because (stereotypically) engineers aren’t good communicators (excluding the authors of some excellent engineering blogs). Systemic problem. I think the key is to have one really famous person who is an outstanding communicator and a face for the profession, like Jacques Cousteau for oceanography.
For engineering as a whole, I don’t think there can be one single person to act as the representative face. The different branches of engineering are too just too diverse and may have conflicting interests. For hi-tech, there already are two very famous people that act as excellent ambassadors — Steve Jobs and Bill Gates.
I think we need a new Bill Nye the Science Guy. What nerdy shows are on TV for kids today?
So very true. I also notice that whenever you see a professional on TV they are either a doctor, lawyer, or architect? Someone I know switched from engineering to architecture … she was telling someone about eng but then when she switched to saying she was an architect the person’s eyes lit up and they said something along the lines of “wow, you’re an architect!”. Its enough to make you cry into your coffee!
Subversive Guide to Engineering