Why are Engineers Boring?

As a technology-savvy and gadget-driven a society, it is surprising that so few Americans really understand engineering and what engineers actually do in 2013.

Why are Engineers Boring, while their Technology is Exciting?

The National Engineers Week Foundation posed a question to leaders in the engineering field, such as Dr. Charles Vest, President of the National Academy of Engineering, along with other corporate leaders from Bechtel and Dupont.

Why are engineers boring?

One of the questions asked focused on what we, as an engineering industry, can do to make our educational and career pursuit more “real and relatable to the general public.”  Some aspects of the excellent responses included:

Amos Avidan, Bechtel Senior Vice President and Manager of Corporate Engineering and Technology, stated:
“Make people aware that engineering touches every aspect of our lives. All of the technology used and embraced by the public is the product of engineering. Make it known that engineers created the hardware and software that enable social media. Advertise the fact that engineers designed smart phones that have become essential to how we work and play. Explain the role that engineering plays in providing our basic necessities: supplying electricity to our homes and offices, driving our car to the grocery store, or flying to another continent.”

Likewise, Gayle Gibson of Dupont pointed out the value of a project by the national Academy of Engineering called “Changing the Conversation.” This project is an effort designed to enhance public understanding of engineering. She encourages us to share the key messages of this project with the general public.

Gayle J. Gibson, DuPont Director of Corporate Operations, shares the following key messages in her interaction in the community:

  • Engineers make a world of difference;
  • Engineers are creative problem-solvers;
  • Engineers help shape the future; and
  • Engineering is essential to our health, happiness, and safety.

National Engineers Week

Kudos to Gayle Gibson and Amos Avidan for these excellent responses! I am in total agreement with them. In 2013, as the engineering industry celebrates National Engineers Week, or “E-Week” – the real goal we’re developing is getting other professionals, families, kids, and non-engineers to celebrate E-Week as well.

So my dear friends, I ask the question to all of us in E-Week:

If engineering is so important, why don’t more people know what we do? Why isn’t it shared more?

I submit to you the unfettered answer: because we are boring! Well, it seems a majority of us are “boring,” and that’s the message we’ve been comfortable and happy to transmit.

Boring Engineers

Yes, to all of my fellow engineers – the world sees us as boring. I must admit that they have a justified position in many cases. Before you start throwing rocks at me – let’s stop and think back to most of our engineering professors. Think about the engineers who you personally knew, had heard of, or know today. You wouldn’t be thrilled to grab a beer with them, or to chat for endless hours over a cup of coffee. There isn’t a lot of laughing or jumping up-and-down involved in those scenarios. Clearly they are smart, and they’re probably highly-respected. However, few of us would say they’re the stuff that inspires a 5-year-old to love math or science.

How to Make Engineering Exciting!

So how do we “glam” up engineering?  How do we make it exciting, interesting, or something that young people want to be a part of? My suggestions are simple, but their implementation is long-term and takes participation from a variety of groups.

STEP ONE: STOP BEING BORING! Talk in languages people actually understand. Don’t try to impress, or be 100% factual, or absolutely brilliant, untouchable, or infallible down to the last detail. Speak to people in relatable terms that make engineering real and alive. Don’t be afraid to be a little goofy! This doesn’t mean you have to invent new theories or a bold-face lie. Just relate what you’re talking about to something in that person’s life, in the physical, tangible world that surrounds everyone.

STEP TWO: Get the media involved. Ask the media to profile exciting technology in your community. Use every opportunity you get. This relates to step one, because the media isn’t going to get involved if the subject isn’t exciting. The media wants viewers, readers, followers, and high ratings in general. You want to be the highlight of the 6 o’clock news, not the 2pm mid-day space-filler (although, feel free to talk about outer space!).

STEP THREE: Work to change the “face” of engineering. A new “engineering reality show” might help? I agree – can’t believe I just said that! However, this is the kind of stuff people watch. They’re interested in this. They read magazines about this. These reality shows generate their own marketing and media strategies – simply by being on the air, gathering viewers, these people are repeatedly interviewed in the news, on talk shows, and for print purposes. This requires showing interesting, exciting engineers. Don’t get me wrong, I love “The Big Bang Theory,” but promoting the viewing stereotypical scientists, such as Dr. Sheldon Cooper, is not helping our cause!

STEP FOUR: Commit to sharing this message in “non-engineering” forums – organizations, individual engineers, and the community. Continue sharing the message regarding the breadth of impact engineering has on our lives, how important it is for our future, and how truly fascinating these subjects are! Kids LOVE experiments, and all adults are truly just BIG KIDS! Run with that!

Lack Borders, Lack Boring!

Many influential groups are already addressing these points. Organizations, such as Engineers without Borders, are excellent examples of initiatives that can shift the general public’s perception of engineering. Likewise, I love to see the members of the University of Central Florida Society of Women Engineers (SWE) doing exciting projects and engaging the community in ways that my University of Oklahoma SWE chapter never considered 25 years ago. These efforts are the types of initiatives we need to produce a shift in the public’s perspective of engineering.

As I said, my suggestions will take time to implement. I am hopeful that we can do it, over time, and because we desperately need to do this.

Let the shifting begin!

Happy E-Week to all, and with great faith in our engineering culture,