Engineering Is ... ?
For all that engineering is said to be everywhere, K-12 audiences stumble over what engineers actually do. They typically hold at once too broad and too narrow a sense of the field. For workforce development or broadening diversity in engineering, this environment of misconception is a challenge to reckon with.
In one study, over 80% of elementary teachers believed engineers did the actual construction work in building, not understanding how engineers actually designed buildings or supervised their construction. Over half thought engineers installed wiring, repaired cars, and drove machines. And over 25% said engineers “arrange flowers” or “make pizza.”[i] Students offered similarly, well, imaginative responses.[ii]
... Something Like This
Our first book, Dream, Invent, Create, shows elementary school students what engineers actually do. Buyers of the book, an “NSTA Recommends” title, have used it to show 10,000’s kids what engineering is all about, from ocean engineering done deep under the sea to high up in the sky where the work of aerospace engineers orbits the earth. Along the way, the book takes kids on a journey through lots of other engineering fields, from agriculture to mining, biomedical to systems, civil to materials.
The Greater Good ...
We take our mission to be exactly this – put engaging, informative stories, pictures, and data about engineering into the hands of people touching K-12 audiences with messages about the rewards and opportunities of engineering study and work. The greater goal we’re all trying to serve is to increase the numbers of students interested in and prepared for success as engineering majors and ultimately professionals in the field.
... or Is It?
Embracing this project, though, begs the question of whether it’s something that we – as a company, as a community of outreach-ers, as a country – should actually be doing. Do we in fact need more engineers? Is there a shortage? Doesn’t the market work to bring the right number of people into the field for the jobs available? Aren’t there 100,000’s of engineers around the world already designing and making the tools and technologies we rely on in our daily lives?
A Debate with Many Sides
People take various tacks on questions like these, related to global competitiveness, international graduation rates, workforce development, and so on. Countless stories in the media note that India and China supposedly graduate 5 to 8 times as many engineers as does the United States. On the other hand, these graduates might not look like the engineers we recognize coming out of U.S. colleges and universities.
Job prospects for engineers are said to be abundant, with 3% unemployment in the field. And applications for the 65,000 H-1b visas available in 2015 – going predominantly for technical workers – got snapped up in less than a week, along with the extra 20,000 available for advanced degrees. Exactly these visas, however, might be damaging the market for American engineers, artificially lowering wages and reducing demand for their services.
Engineering and Diversity
From another angle, though – the diversity angle – there can be no debate about the need for more people going into engineering. Women, nearly 51% of the population, earned 20.3% of engineering degrees in 2004 and 18.9% in 2012. Hispanics, about 15.5% of the population, went from 5.6% to 9.0% in the period. And African-Americans, 14.2% of the population, went from 5.1% to 4.2%. These data, from the American Society for Engineering Education, show not only under-representation in engineering among women and minorities, but actual decreases at a time when lots of energy and attention went towards increasing these rates of participation. The news this summer about women leaving engineering and the lack of diversity at high-profile tech companies sheds further light on this under-representation.
Engineering is, in a real sense, an exercise in public service, promoting the “health, happiness, and safety” of all, as the National Academy of Engineering has it. For this service to meet all of our needs, all of us need to be enlisted in the cause of providing the service. At these levels of participation, we are missing out on essential insights and contributions from a majority of the population. Leaving these groups out of the work we need to do to meet the grand challenges facing us as a country will leave us with incomplete solutions to these urgent problems.
How We're Trying to Help
At Start Engineering, we pay careful attention to crafting messages and producing materials that speak to all the different faces of the K-12 world. As everyone in the field understands, it’s not easy, but guidance and research are available to help people make conscious choices about how they talk about engineering to the diverse K-12 communities we need to reach. We’ve had good feedback on our material from numerous customers, including people using Dream, Invent, Create, at the Community Resources for Science 2013-2014 Science Superstar Program in Berkeley, CA.
A Clear Diversity Imperative
So, do we need more engineers? Hard to say. It certainly won’t hurt for more people to enter the workforce with the habits of mind and technical skills that an engineering education imparts. It’s beyond dispute, though, that we need engineers who represent the entire country, in all its diversity, as we work through the challenges of making an ever-more designed and built-up world serve the needs of everyone in it.
In our way, we are working to meet the diversity imperative in engineering with messages and pictures that appeal to the full spectrum of K-12 audiences. We’re glad to hear where we’re hitting the mark and where we can improve. Send us your thoughts and experiences with efforts on this front, and we’ll go to school on any and all lessons we can gather.
[i] C. Cunningham, C. Lachapelle, A. Lindren-Streicher. “Elementary Teachers’ Understandings of Engineering and Technology.” Proceedings of the 2006 ASEE Annual Conference.
[ii] C. Cunningham, C. Lachapelle. “Engineering Is Elementary: Children’s Changing Understanding of Engineering and Science.” Proceedings of the 2007 ASEE Annual Conference.
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. A recovering English major, he thinks the Internet-age marriage of communications and technology is, well, really cool. You should write to him about this area, especially when he gets stuff wrong, at email@example.com.