Not Your Regular Inspiration

Every once in awhile we encounter a piece of writing, a passage or a phrase that strikes a chord with us. It is a grouping of words we will remember for quite some time and can shape the decisions we make, how we act and who we become. The story you are about to read does not concern one of those phrases... or maybe it does...

Like most first year engineering students, I was required to take an Introduction to Engineering course. Ours had a book and apparently we were supposed to be reading it. At some point during the semester some ill-placed motivation drove me to decide to actually do the next reading assignment--Chapter 6. The Chapter was entitled "Engineers and the Real World" and the first sentence read:

"Now that you've decided upon engineering as a career and have gotten this far in the book, it's time for the bad news: If you become an engineer, you will be destined for oblivion."

I closed the book.

Maybe I was on to something with that whole 'not reading' thing. In fact, I didn't open the book again until much later. The phrase did effect me, but in an "oh yeah? Well, we'll see about that!" kind of way, instead of the inspirational "I've found my calling" way an apprehensive new engineer might want. Regardless, when I opened the book for the second time and actually read past the first sentence, I found that the author really made a great point, all within the first paragraph:

"Think about it. The press and the broadcast media rarely cover the lives of engineers. The individual exploits of politicians,... actors,... and sports figures all receive coverage in the press... The only time that engineers do receive detailed coverage is when a major failure causes some public catastrophe."

The author goes on to express the view that the public held engineers responsible for, well, everything and that once there is an interruption in say, their taken-for-granted electrical grid, the public blamed the blackout

on "the incompetence of the engineers." This may still be true for some people, but I believe overall public sentiment toward engineers has changed since this book was published and I believe the engineering community has had a lot to do with that change.

Engineers and Engineering Groups have become more pro-active in matters of public health and safety. ASCE's Report Card for America's Infrastructure is a great example. This communicates to state and federal politicians (those who divvy up budgets) the health of the infrastructure that their constituents depend on. It also communicates to the community at large what the issues are--problems that they may not be able to see.

Informing the community at large can motivate change in government policy but it also shows the community that engineers are looking out for them.

Though we would like to, we can't build bridges that last forever. It's up to our government representatives to budget for infrastructure upkeep, and the public is realizing this. With sustainability and green technology gaining ground and public interest, communities are looking to engineers to solve the world's problems and are supporting their efforts.

Don't think that the Engineering community has won over everyone just yet, but we have made progress. There are still people out there that don't understand why we can't do more with less (though we do that daily). Perhaps some people's views are probably most eloquently conveyed by comic Lewis Black:

"It's absolutely stupid that we live without an ozone layer. We have men, we've got rockets, we've got saran wrap--FIX IT!!!"

We're working on it.

What are your thoughts on how the public and the press view the engineering profession?

source: Horenstein, M. (2002). Design Concepts For Engineers ( 2nd ed.). Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall, 178.
glasses image:
inspiration ship image: mab2413


Elizabeth, It isn&#039;t just the public perception...often our own industries don&#039;t value engineers and engineering as they should; we&#039;re seen simply as inherent project costs in many cases. The reasons are plentiful, and can&#039;t all be addressed at once, so I wanted to start small and try to overcome part of the perception problem. People attracted to engineering work aren&#039;t always the most self-promoting folks, and yet we do great things everyday. I wrote this: <a href="" target="_blank"></a> a few months ago, with the idea that it would give us a chance to just tell a few people our story. One on one. Not an earth shattering, or even earth moving, campaign...just one that built from the bottom up. A chance to tell people what we do...why we&#039;re needed. The response has been fantastic: we&#039;ve already given away over 2000 of these ChemE&#039;s are Heroes wristbands. I hope lots of conversations have been started over them, and I hope a few minds have been enlightened or changed. If any of you are running local sections or divisions and want some to give away at a meeting, drop me an email. This isn&#039;t an advertising campaign for us, its just that we&#039;re all ChemE&#039;s, and we believe in what we do.

ehorahan's picture

Steve, Thanks for sharing! Thats a great idea! And you are absolutely right, some industries and companies don&#039;t value the engineering resources they have and need. Its only when something goes wrong...