Starting off behind
Engineers are caricatured as socially inept, as nailed in the picture at right. This characterization is of a piece with a field in general seen as geeky, predominantly male, and difficult. With Engineers Week just having run its annual course last week, it’s worth a look at how messaging and activities launched in the name of promoting the field are (or are not) working to change people’s minds about the field.
A word about engineering
Almost ten years ago, the National Academy of Engineering started “Changing the Conversation,” a project to develop effective engineering messages. Based on robust market research, the project culminated in a comprehensive portfolio of messages and resources, made freely available to organizations working to communicate a different, positive message about engineering.
The messages emphasize opportunities available to people in the field and benefits to the world at large:
- Engineers are creative problem-solvers.
- Engineers make a world of difference.
- Engineering is essential to our health, happiness, and safety.
- Engineers help shape the future.
These messages are broad and conceptual, offering ample room to fill in specifics associated with users’ own activities or arguments. The ways in which scores of engineering-oriented organizations – from colleges and universities to non-profits to companies – have adapted “Changing the Conversation” materials make up a growing area on the website.
The testing ground
As one of the most widely subscribed, highly visible periods on the engineering outreach calendar, Engineers Week offers a great window into engineering outreach. What exactly are people doing to overcome the assumptions and perceptions about engineering that make, for example, the picture above hit home in such a funny, but pointed way?
The organizing entity behind Engineers Week is DiscoverE, a non-profit with strong corporate support and roots in the National Society of Professional Engineers. DiscoverE runs several programs throughout the year, but Engineers Week is the capstone event.
Designed to promote awareness and esteem for the field, it stands on four legs: outreach, education, collaboration, and volunteerism. With DiscoverE as a hub of consistent messaging and branding materials, Engineers Week activities fan out across the country in a coherent, multi-point effort to resignify engineering in the minds of participants.
How it works
This year’s theme, “Engineers Make a World of Difference,” is a wheel taken directly from the “Changing the Conversation” vehicle. Check. Messaging 101 says repetition over time is a basic step in establishing a brand identity in people’s minds.
A January 12 webinar expanded on how Engineers Week participants could “make a difference,” offering specific ideas and recommendations for activities in five general areas:
- Help kids and adults discover engineering.
- Join the worldwide celebration of engineers.
- Be a role model for girls.
- Prepare yourself to be an effective volunteer.
- Spread the word.
With DiscoverE support and ample online resources, organizations putting on Engineers Week activities could set their sights on gaining visibility and audience share.
Some of the headline messaging activities had high visibility, indeed. President Obama chimed in with a message posted on the DiscoverE Facebook page, Representative Daniel Lipinski (IL-03) introduced H. Res. 623, “Supporting the goals and ideals of Engineers Week,” and astronauts aboard the International Space Station beamed earthward a video tribute to the event.
Action on the ground
Even so, local activities are the lifeblood of Engineers Week. Colleges and universities, corporations, non-profits, and other engineering-oriented organizations work on their own and in collaboration to reach audiences, especially K-12 students and their parents.
- Worcester Polytechnic Institute, Iowa State University, and the University of Delaware showed how engineering students and professors give an education-oriented slant on Engineers Week.
- Engineering societies’ activities were well represented by the Institute for Electrical and Electronics Engineers, the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, and the Engineers Club of Baltimore.
- And museums were frequently the venues for partnerships among corporations, non-profits, and education groups, as at the Frontiers of Flight Museum in Dallas and the St. Louis Science Center.
In all these examples, groups adapted local content within the umbrella structure laid out by DiscoverE to register their efforts within an overarching strategy that has a validated foundation in both content and procedure.
Gauging the response
These efforts are just inputs, though, wholly under the control of organizers. The outcomes or results are harder to capture and analyze, ever the challenge with outreach activities.
One angle on how messages are received is available on social media. Engineers Week, for example, had a hashtag, #eweek2016, which makes for easy searching and review of tweets associated with the event. Heavily retweeted and liked tweets included:
- A Lockheed-Martin quiz about engineering
- A hypnotic GIF from MIT of computer-enabled remote control of a rolling ball
- From Funny or Die, a somewhat funny video imagining celebrity-style coverage of engineers
- A simple thank you from NSF for what engineers do to make the world a better place
- An MIT class project promising advances in fusion energy
The frequent, wide recirculation of these messages suggests they resonated with, at least, that slice of the Twitter audience already paying some attention to messages about engineering.
Messaging that works
Our Storify treatment of these and selected others shows people hitting many of the messaging marks called out in NAE and DiscoverE guidance:
- Engineering makes the world a better place.
- It offers unique opportunities to learn and contribute.
- The field is open to anyone and everyone with aptitude and interest.
As it happens, these are exactly the touchstone messages of our own books about engineering, meant to attract and excite K-12 audiences regarding opportunities available to them in engineering. We were happy to be part of several organizations' activities during Engineers Week (thank you, IEEE, the University of Houston, and the U.S. Naval Academy).
On our way, with any luck
Messaging about the engineering field has come a long way in recent years. Resources are available, people grasp the need, and their actions reflect an impressive willingness to speak and act on behalf of the field as a whole. Evidence from Engineers Week this year shows that people seem to understand that the task of making engineering appealing and accessible to wider audiences is greater than any one group can stand up to on its own.
If you participated in or heard of exciting, effective Engineers Week activities, please do share it with a comment below.
And feel free to share these thoughts with any interested colleagues or friends.
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 can write to him about this topic, especially when he gets stuff wrong, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
You can also follow along on Twitter @StartEngNow.
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