Dreams Need Doing - Does Engineering Outreach?

 shlomp-a-pompa,  used by permission

shlomp-a-pompa, used by permission

Outreach Up, Outputs Down - What Gives?

By any measure, engineering outreach is a growth industry. One measure, the frequency of references to “engineering outreach” in books published between 1980 and 2008, has increased, says Google, by some 2200%. But over the period, NCES data show that engineering graduation rates fell from 6.8 percent of all degrees conferred to 4.4 percent. Since 2008, this rate has either stayed the same, per NCES figures, or risen to 4.5 percent, by NSF figures. Either way, no real change. And within engineering, graduation rates for women and African-Americans have fallen in the last ten years.

     These trends raise real questions. While “dreams,” as the NAE tells us, “need doing,” does engineering outreach? With a return like this on annual investments that could be as much as $400 million, is engineering outreach actually worth the time, money, and effort that have gone into it? What could be the matter with engineering outreach? Does the fault, dear outreach-ers, lie with us or with the stars?

     Of course, none of us would be doing what we’re doing if we believed outreach was not worth the candle. In fact, many smart people have worked hard to produce a body of scholarship that defines pretty clearly how to conduct effective engineering outreach. You can get a flavor for it at BEST, the NAE, this Bayer Corporation “compendium,” and in a special January 2013 edition of ASCE’s “Leadership and Management in Engineering.”

 Rachel Sapp,  used by permission

Rachel Sapp, used by permission

Why We Do What We Do

The research also shows that most outreach is underwritten by a consistent philosophy. This philosophy is, almost universally, the imperative of attracting more students to study and work in engineering, supported by reflexive references to maintaining global competitiveness, promoting diversity, building a robust technical workforce, and related causes.

The Problem with Why We Do What We Do

 Fritz Ahlefeldt-Laurvig,  used by permission

Fritz Ahlefeldt-Laurvig, used by permission

Such rhetoric, used to motivate engineering outreach and STEM education more broadly, can actually work against our interests. It seeks to motivate through inspiring negative emotions – fear of falling behind, avoiding the loss of material well-being, guilt over excluding under-represented groups from the field. Repeated often enough in a time when the fearful predictions don’t actually manifest themselves, these arguments lose effectiveness. Indeed, one of the go-to claims about engineers – “they solve problems” – still fastens on difficulty and hardship, “problems,” and exemplifies the nimbus of negativity that can hover over engineering in discussion of its role in society.

     I don’t mean to say that the arguments are wrong; I’m saying more specifically that they’re not useful, and I would argue that the students’ choices vis a vis engineering education show this to be so. To the extent this philosophy shapes how we seek to persuade people about the benefits of engineering, it just might not be serving us well.

Up with Engineering

Better messaging about engineering connects the field concretely and clearly to students’ lived experience and real interests. The NAE’s work in this area is instructive. Their messages, for the most part, point towards positive, more uplifting outcomes and partake of hopefulness and faith in the future. Engineers “make a world of difference,” they promote “health, happiness, and safety,” they “help shape the future.” Taglines present engineering as a ready reagent to put to work in converting hopes and dreams about the future into real prospects – “dreams need doing,” “life takes engineering,” “the power to do.”

 Llima Orosa,  used by permission

Llima Orosa, used by permission

     To break through on engineering enrollments, I would argue that an approach to outreach consciously based on the transformative capabilities of engineering is in order. Positioning engineering as a pathway for students to follow through on their individual hopes and dreams in a way that serves greater needs has the potential to bring real numbers of new students into the field. It has the potential to give engineering outreach traction with students not already in the “pipeline,” with advanced math and science classes under their belts. It can expand the potential rewards of the field to the surely universal desire students feel to make the most of energies and talents that should feel limitless at their age.

Our Take

This is our philosophy at Start Engineering. Our elementary school book, Dream, Invent, Create, an NSTA Recommends title, uses poetry and illustrations to appeal to kids’ imaginations and feelings. The book finishes with this exhortation:

So make your big / dreams come alive! / Help humanity to thrive.

Invent amazing / new designs / and let your full / potential shine.

Create a future / bright and new— / all the rest / is up to you.

Do you think engineering outreach has a problem? What would it be? How would we fix it? What’s your philosophy of outreach?  What has worked for you? Please share your stories in the Comments section or send us an email

Eric Iversen is VP for Learning and Communications at Start Engineering. He has written and spoken widely on engineering education in the K-12 arena. You should write to him about this area, especially when he gets stuff wrong, at eiversen@start-engineering.com