For those in the broad engineering community—those who employ, work with, and/or educate engineers, and engineers themselves—there is no need to explain the importance and value of engineering. They understand that engineers help make the world a better place for all, that they regularly grapple with important societal and environmental issues, and that the engineering process is every bit as creative as composing a symphony or crafting a piece of art.
But the situation outside the engineering community is quite different. Studies have shown that most K–12 students and teachers have a limited appreciation of all the ways that engineering makes their lives better and, furthermore, that they have little understanding of what engineers do or of the opportunities that an engineering education offers (Cunningham et al. 2006; Lachapelle et al. 2012). While much of the public gives engineers credit for improving technology and contributing to economic growth, engineers are seen as having little interest in dealing with people or societal issues (Harris Interactive 2004).
As illustrated in this report, there are compelling reasons why improving public understanding of engineering is a worthy goal for the nation.
Ours is a technology-driven society, and if citizens are to play an informed role in shaping policy decisions that will affect them and their quality of life, they need to have a basic grasp of what technology is, how engineering work is done, and what sorts of considerations and constraints shape the development of various technologies. In other words, they need to be technologically literate (NAE and NRC 2002). The National Academy of Engineering (NAE) publication Changing the Conversation: Messages for Improving Public Understanding of Engineering explained it this way:
A number of important public policy issues, from climate change to the marketing of genetically modified foods, involve scientific and technical issues. Decision making on these and other topics will involve trade-offs, as we attempt to simultaneously manage limited resources while sustaining quality of life. Public discourse and the democratic process could be enhanced if citizens understood more about how engineers are trained and what the practice of engineering entails. (NAE 2008, p. 19)
In addition to helping create citizens who are better able to take part in the democratic decision-making process, technological literacy helps people make better decisions in their own lives. As consumers, individuals must regularly assess the value and usefulness of various technologies—everything from smart phones to electric automobiles—and decide whether they are worth the investment. Understanding something of the engineering process—for example, the role of trade-offs in designing new products—better equips people to make informed choices.
For the United States to maintain its economic competitiveness, it must maintain the capacity for technological innovation (Council on Competitiveness 2004; NAS/NAE/IOM 2007; PCAST 2004). Two of the most important contributors to this capacity are the graduation of qualified engineers from engineering programs (NAE 2005a) and investment in engineering research (NAE 2005b). Both depend in part on the technological literacy of the nation’s citizens and policymakers: to the extent that they understand the contributions of engineers and their importance to innovation and competitiveness, the nation is likely to allocate attention and resources to both engineering education and engineering research.
Finally, improved public understanding of engineering should help interest capable students in studying to become engineers. This is true both because it makes engineering more personally appealing to students and because it may positively affect the attitudes toward engineering of individuals, such as family and friends, who influence student decision making about careers (Dietrich and Kracke 2009; Veridian inSight 2009). Student interest in engineering careers, as reflected in expressed intentions to major in engineering in college, reached a 15-year high of 10.3 percent in 2010 (NSF 2012).
A steady supply of qualified, creative engineers is key to industry’s ability to innovate, and this, in turn, supports overall economic growth. Attracting students from groups that have historically been significantly underrepresented in the engineering profession is especially key. Women, African Americans, Hispanics, and Native Americans represent a significant reservoir of engineering talent that is not being fully tapped (AAUW 2010; NACME 2008). As the US population becomes more and more diverse, engineering designs should take into account the values and concerns of people across this spectrum, and this aim can be achieved most effectively by having a diverse engineering workforce. For all these reasons it is important to encourage understanding of engineering throughout the US population and not solely in the groups, such as white and Asian males, whose members have long dominated the ranks of engineering.
In 2002 the NAE published Raising Public Awareness of Engineering, which reported that although the engineering community had been spending hundreds of millions of dollars each year to advance public understanding of engineering, the messaging seemed to be having little effect. The committee that produced the report concluded that the problem was in large part due to a lack of consistency in the messaging efforts: different segments of the engineering community were offering different messages, with little to no coordination among them, and, more important, the messages had not been developed in any systematic, data-driven way.
In response, the NAE convened the Committee on Public Understanding of Engineering Messages, which had three goals:
1. to identify a small number of messages likely to improve the public understanding of engineering,
2. to test the effectiveness of these messages in a variety of target audiences, and
3. to disseminate the results of the message testing to the engineering community.
The committee worked with a communications firm and a market research company in developing and testing the messages, and the results of the committee’s efforts were published as Changing the Conversation: Messages for Improving Public Understanding of Engineering.
Positioning Statement, Messages, Taglines, and Survey Results
In deciding on an approach to get people to talk and think differently about engineering, the committee relied on a strategy commonly used by companies and other entities interested in establishing a “brand.” It first developed a positioning statement to serve as a guide for the sorts of messages that should be created, and then produced (and tested) a number of messages based on the statement as well as a series of shorter “taglines.”
The positioning statement, reproduced in Box 1-1, presents engineering as a field whose practitioners improve people’s lives by using their creativity to develop solutions to real-world problems. It intentionally avoids emphasizing the role of mathematics and science in engineering because focus groups and other research had shown that people already understood that engineers use science and math and this message was pushing some students not to consider engineering as a career.
The positioning statement is not intended for public consumption (it is too long and has too many different ideas). Its purpose is to provide guidance to engineers and related organizations on shaping messages about engineering for external audiences. The committee
No profession unleashes the spirit of innovation like engineering. From research to real-world applications, engineers constantly discover how to improve our lives by creating bold new solutions that connect science to life in unexpected, forward-thinking ways. Few professions turn so many ideas into so many realities. Few have such a direct and positive effect on people’s everyday lives. We are counting on engineers and their imaginations to help us meet the needs of the 21st century.
developed five such messages, each articulating an aspect of the engineering brand set forth in the positioning statement. The messages consist of one short sentence that states the message succinctly and a second that expands on it. The committee tested the messages in an online survey of nearly 3,600 adults and teens who were asked how appealing, believable, and personally relevant they found each message. Four of the messages tested well (Box 1-2).1 To make sure the results would provide statistically valid data for underrepresented groups, the survey population included an oversampling of Hispanics and African Americans.
Adults and teens of both genders rated “Engineers make a world of difference” as the most appealing message. Among teens, boys found this message as appealing as “Engineers are creative problem solvers.” The second-favorite message for girls was “Engineering is essential to our health, happiness, and safety” (NAE 2008).
The committee also developed seven taglines (Box 1-3), short phrases that capture some aspect of the positioning statement in a pithy
1 The fifth message, which was rated least appealing by all groups surveyed, was “Engineers connect science to the real world. They collaborate with scientists and other specialists (such as animators, architects, or chemists) to turn bold new ideas into reality.” The project committee speculated the poor result was due to the message’s explicit reference to science, and it recommended the message not be used.
The Four Messages That Tested Well
• Engineers make a world of difference. From new farming equipment and safer drinking water to electric cars and faster microchips, engineers use their knowledge to improve people’s lives in meaningful ways.
• Engineers are creative problem solvers. They have a vision for how something should work and are dedicated to making it better, faster, or more efficient.
• Engineers help shape the future. They use the latest science, tools, and technology to bring ideas to life.
• Engineering is essential to our health, happiness, and safety. From the grandest skyscrapers to microscopic medical devices, it is impossible to imagine life without engineering.
SOURCE: NAE (2008).
way that can be used in a magazine advertisement or on a web page or perhaps spoken at the end of a television or radio commercial. Respondents to the online survey were asked to rate these taglines. The most successful among all groups was “Turning dreams into reality,” though a greater percentage of boys than girls favored it. “Because dreams need doing” was particularly popular among the teenagers who took the survey and was liked equally well by girls and boys.
Uptake of the Report and Messages
The committee recommended in its report that the engineering community rethink how it presents itself to the general public. In place of traditional outreach efforts, which tended to sell engineering as a remunerative career choice and to emphasize the need for students to be good at science and math, the report called for the community to present engineering as an emotionally satisfying vocation that is inherently creative and concerned with forging a better world. The two pre-
• Turning ideas into reality
• Because dreams need doing
• Designed to work wonders
• Life takes engineering
• The power to do
• Bolder by design
• Behind the next big thing
SOURCE: NAE (2008).
sentations of engineering are equally true, but the latter is more likely to create the sort of positive image that can help the public understand the value of engineering and attract a larger, more diverse group of students to become engineers.
Changing the Conversation was aimed specifically at “engineering professional societies, technology-intensive industries, colleges of engineering, science and technology centers, and other organizations that communicate with policymakers, K–12 teachers and students, and the public at large about engineering” (NAE 2008, p. viii). The goal was to convince these various organizations to base their own messaging efforts on the new positioning statement, using the specific messages and taglines provided in the report if they wished.
The report did indeed have the desired effect with a number of organizations, and Chapter 2 details many of the efforts to use the messages or related messaging. According to the National Academies Press, which published Changing the Conversation, 2,900 copies had been sold as of February 2013. As NAE President Charles Vest noted in 2011, “In the almost three years since the report was published, the notion that the engineering community needs to change its messaging has gained some currency” (Vest 2011, p. 10).
The challenge of the Changing the Conversation project was to develop a new brand for engineering. As explained in the report,
By “brand” we mean an association of specific traits in a person’s mind that induces behavior. A simple way of understanding this concept might be as a warranty—a promise to perform or deliver. For example, the McDonald’s brand promises clean restaurants and food of a known quality. We use this brand as a shortcut in decision making. For example, when traveling on the road, we rely on McDonald’s promise to provide a quick, adequate meal. The same thing happens with brands in a grocery or hardware store. As we shop, we make quick judgments based on a brand’s promise or warranty. (NAE 2008, p. 24)
The concept of brand can also be applied in areas very different from traditional corporate marketing. Various professions have de facto brands, although they are often not the product of conscious advertising campaigns. Doctors are thought of as “healers,” while lawyers generally have a less positive image. The impression that the general public has of engineering is less well defined than that of either doctors or lawyers. It may be somewhat negative (some people think of engineers as “nerdy” or “boring”). The public strongly associates engineering with high ability in mathematics and science, an image often promoted by engineers themselves. But research has shown that the biggest problem is simply that most people have only a vague idea of what engineers actually do (NAE 2008).
It is possible for a profession to rebrand itself, to create a new and more favorable image and understanding of itself in the mind of the public. This has been attempted, for example, by actuaries (Beuerlein 2006), accountants (AICPA 2012), and, in the United Kingdom, the nursing profession (www.nursingthefuture.org.uk). But rebranding can be difficult, time-consuming, and expensive, and the engineering profession faces a number of particular challenges (Baranowski 2011).
The first challenge is dealing with the existing brand. The stereotype of engineers is due in part to messaging efforts of the engineering community itself, which has often emphasized the role of science and mathematics in engineering and failed to discuss how engineers grapple with real-world problems, including societal and environmental issues. It should be possible to move away from this brand, but
it will require time and a consistent and unified messaging effort from the engineering community.
A second challenge will be to achieve coordination and consistency in the rebranding effort. There is no single voice that speaks for the engineering community and presents an image of engineering to the broader world. Each sector of the community has a stake in the public perception of the field, but each also has unique goals, capabilities, and parochial interests. This poses obvious challenges to the coordinated, consistent delivery of messages.
A third challenge centers on language and what words mean to different people. For example, many people do not distinguish the word “engineering” from science or technology. And engineers themselves do not always agree on what engineers do or how to explain it to the public. This makes it difficult to get a clear brand across. The issue is further complicated when those in the community attempt to describe the differences between subdisciplines of engineering, such as mechanical, electrical, or civil.
Finally, a rebranding program must deal with the “promise gap”—the gap between what is described in the rebranding effort versus what people encounter in real life. For instance, if students decide to major in engineering because they have heard that it is a creative profession that enables people to help address societal problems but then experience several years of classes focused mostly on solving science and math problems, they may feel misled and may convey their disillusionment to others.
In recognition of the challenge of rebranding engineering, in 2010 the NAE, with funding from the National Science Foundation, initiated a follow-up project called Changing the Conversation: From Research to Action. This project was intended to provide encouragement and assistance to the engineering community in adopting and acting on the positioning statement, messages, and taglines developed in the earlier effort. The statement of task for the project outlined three goals:
1. sponsor a high-level stakeholders’ workshop to develop support for a coordinated national messaging campaign,
2. produce an online messaging resource (a “toolkit”) for use by the engineering community, and
3. publish an “action plan” containing strategic and tactical recommendations for the engineering community to effectively promote a more positive and accurate image of engineering.
The project was overseen by a 10-member advisory committee co-chaired by Ellen Kullman, chair of the board and CEO of DuPont, and NAE President Charles M. Vest (see biographies of committee members in Appendix A).
At the end of 2010, the committee hosted a 2-day workshop with several dozen high-level decision makers representing key stakeholder groups in the engineering community. The workshop was designed to educate the attendees about the original Changing the Conversation project; to discuss how the project’s messages had been put to use by selected organizations; and to identify further actions the engineering community might take to more fully implement the CTC positioning statement, messages, and taglines, including
• using the messages and taglines in new outreach activities;
• disseminating new messaging consistent with Changing the Conversation through specific communications tactics and tools, such as web-based media;
• and supporting a coordinated messaging effort, including possibly a national-scale advertising campaign.
The third goal, an action plan, is the subject of this report, which presents a series of steps that can—and, the committee believes, should—be taken to encourage the new ways of thinking about engineering described in Changing the Conversation.
Following this introductory chapter, Chapter 2 examines what has been accomplished since the release of Changing the Conversation. It pro-
vides evidence of improved messaging from the engineering community, including both messaging that is based directly on messages and taglines from Changing the Conversation and messaging that is in the spirit of that report but does not use the report’s messages and taglines explicitly. The chapter also describes the creation of several new tools and resources for members of the engineering community interested in taking part in the rebranding effort. These include the Changing the Conversation website, a Changing the Conversation Facebook page, and a train-the-trainer effort developed by the National Engineers Week Foundation (NEWF).
Chapter 3 lays out the details of an action plan, suggesting specific steps for various components of the engineering community: corporations, professional societies, government agencies, engineering schools, science and technology centers, and the NAE. We discuss what each can hope to gain by changing the conversations, actions already taken, constraints, and ways to move forward. We also make the case for coordination among these components and suggest ways to achieve such coordination. The chapter ends with a set of recommendations.
This report is aimed at multiple audiences in the engineering community, primarily those that are already engaged in some sort of messaging or outreach efforts, but also those that might be inspired to join the rebranding campaign called for in Changing the Conversation. The professional engineering societies, such as the American Society for Engineering Education, Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, ASME, American Society of Civil Engineers, and Society of Women Engineers compose one key audience. These societies generally have outreach efforts, and their members take part in those efforts, such as by volunteering in schools or other venues. In addition, there are organizations whose main function is outreach, such as NEWF, and engineering-related contests run by organizations such as US FIRST/ FIRST Lego League, BEST, and the Toshiba Exploravision awards.
In the business world, a variety of corporate and industry associations are interested in engineering; like the professional societies, these organizations generally have outreach programs that could be modi-
fied to convey the messages presented in Changing the Conversation. Furthermore, numerous companies depend heavily on engineering and technical talent and many of them have outreach efforts, often through corporate foundation education units or corporate marketing departments.
There are over 300 undergraduate engineering programs in the United States, which typically have outreach materials for prospective students. And because deans and faculty members have a great deal of influence over how students view engineering, they are part of the intended audience for this report. There are also a number of associations connected with education in STEM, such as the National Science Teachers Association, National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, and International Technology and Engineering Educators Association. Each has activities aimed at informing public views of engineering. Because of their role in advising about career options, high school guidance counselors, through organizations such as the National Association for College Admission Counseling, also may benefit by being better informed about engineering.
Governmental audience members include the national laboratories and other federal R&D labs as well as government agencies that deal with engineering, such as the National Science Foundation, National Institute of Standards and Technology, National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Department of Defense, and Department of Energy.
There are many science and technology museums around the country—the Exploratorium in San Francisco, the Tech Museum of San Jose, the Boston Museum of Science, the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry, and many more. Their purpose is to explain science and technology to the public, so they are natural targets for the suggestions presented in both Changing the Conversation and this report.
Finally, the NAE itself, through its projects and the influence and visibility of its leadership and members, is well positioned to influence public understanding of engineering.
Changing how the general public thinks of engineering will require the participation of all these segments and representatives of the engineering community, all pulling in the same direction. This report offers
suggestions to promote that participation in support of accomplishing the goal of “rebranding” engineering for the public.
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