Change the Conversation: Engineering Awareness in K-12

dilbert_bigbeaconWhen compared to other professions, such as medicine or civil service, engineering is largely misunderstood by the general public. Educational research shows that K–12 teachers and students generally have a poor understanding of what engineers do [1, 2], and it is most often believed that engineers “fix” or “construct” things like a car mechanic or construction worker. In addition, public perception of the prestige of professions ranks engineers in the middle of the pack, far below firefighters, scientists, doctors and nurses[3].  After all, a typical stereotype engineer fits the image of Dilbert, a cartoon character of a corporate cubicle bound engineer who is smart, honest, inflexible and dull, a stark contrast to the image of a true renaissance engineer, Leonardo da Vinci, who was creative, literate, and well-rounded[4] (needless to say both images are male).  Dilbert is hardly an accurate portrait of engineers today, and certainly not a figure young people would desire to emulate.

“Scientists investigate that which already is; Engineers create that which has never been.” -Albert Einstein

With a poor understanding of what engineers actually do on a day-to-day basis, and a strong sense that engineering is not “for everyone,” and perhaps especially not for women, our students are not getting the right image of engineering.  Current messages of engineering frame engineering as requiring extraordinary skills in mathematics and science, and that without an aptitude and strong interest in these subjects, one is unlikely to succeed in engineering.  To challenge these perceptions, the National Academy of Engineering commissioned a study (released in 2008) to identify and test positive messages of engineering to improve the public’s understanding[5]. The study found that the “branding” of engineers must be modified to appeal to different audiences, especially young women. By changing the conversation from an emphasis on math and science, to the value engineering has on our society, we can attract more students to engineering. The results of the study found the following three statements the most accurate and positive descriptors of engineering:

  • Engineers make a world of difference and help shape the future: 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.

What do we do with this engineering messaging in K-12? 

Two recommendations:

1)   We must improve K-12 counselors and educator awareness of the breadth of opportunities in engineering  careers for all students, and train them to share these opportunities and options using positive language and messaging that is attractive to students. This means we need to actively challenge stereotypes and implicit biases, as well as provide counselors and educators with tools to use with guiding students to in-demand careers in engineering. Organizations like the National Alliance for Partnerships in Equity are working with counselors and teachers nationally on just this initiative. (For more information, contact me.)

2)   Improve K-12 engineering as it exists today. Engineering in K-12 can occur in core classes, stand-alone classes, or through co-curricular activities. Engineering as it appears in K-12 should NOT perpetuate negative stereotypes nor alienate certain populations. In another report from the National Academy of Engineering [6], three guiding principles were prescribed for all K-12 engineering education: 1) emphasize engineering design; 2) incorporate important and developmentally appropriate mathematics, science, and technology knowledge and skills; and 3) promote engineering habits of mind (systems thinking, creativity, optimism, collaboration, communication, attention to ethical considerations).  Engineering, no matter it’s form in K-12 should fit the NAE guiding principles and align with the Changing the Conversation messages. In a period when we are trying to get more students interested in engineering, we must ensure that the engineering students are exposed to in K-12 doesn’t instead push them away. The National Center for Technological Literacy is the leader in creating such K-12 curriculum.

Shine the Big Beacon

Therefore, we come together, in the light of growing awareness and heightened urgency, and shine a big beacon upon needed change.

What can you do? If you are an engineer, be a Role Model! (Here are some tools for you.) Show students what engineering is, and what engineers do. Whether you are an engineer, or not, you can personally invite the young people you know to consider engineering, and share with them the positive messages bulleted above.  We can all challenge stereotypes about engineering to students and adults who work with students.

Engineering is not only a great career choice because it is creative, collaborative, and can change the world, engineers are also in demand. In order to meet those demands, we have to begin recruiting future engineers in K-12, and to do that, we need to change the conversation. Archaic profiles of engineers bound to cubicles solving really long math problems will not attract many students to engineering, but positive messaging can be the hook to spark the interest of a new generation of engineers that challenge the status quo, and innovate our future world.

About the Author

Meagan Pollock is an engineer, educator, researcher, consultant and advocate for women and minorities in STEM. Meagan’s  work and research focuses on improving equity and accessibility to engineering for all. Follow Meagan:  Web/Blog MeaganPollock.com, Twitter @MeaganPollock, Facebook Page.

References

  1. Cunningham, C., C. Lachapelle, and A. Lindgren-Streicher, Assessing elementary school students’ conceptions of engineering and technology. American Society of Engineering Education, Portland, OR, 2005.
  2. Knight, M. and C. Cunningham. Draw an engineer test (DAET): Development of a tool to investigate students’ ideas about engineers and engineering. in American Society for Engineering Education. 2004. Salt Lake City, UT.
  3. Harris Interactive, American Perspectives on Engineers and Engineering. Poll conducted for the American Association of Engineering Societies. Final report, February 13, 2004. 2004.
  4. Yurtseven, H.O., How does the image of engineering affect student recruitment and retention? A perspective from the USA. Global J. of Engng. Educ, 2002. 6(1): p. 17-23.
  5. Committee on Public Understanding of Engineering Messages, Changing the Conversation: Improving Public Understanding of Engineering. 2008, Washington D.C.: National Academy Press.
  6. Katehi, L., G. Pearson, and M. Feder, Engineering in K-12 education: Understanding the status and improving the prospects. 2009: National Academies Press.