National Engineering Month08 March 2011
You might not know that March is National Engineering Month (NEM), and if you did not I wouldn't be surprised. Engineering students that I share my office with did not know it was happening. In fact, they did not even know that there was such a thing. The lack of knowledge actually indicates a larger problem with engineering.
In our society, what engineers do is not well understood. If you say you are a civil engineer, people will ask if you build/design bridges. As a civil engineer graduate, I do not build bridges and it is unlikely that I ever will. The intricacies of bridge design are not within my body of engineering knowledge. However, if you wanted a problem solved with your water distribution or storm and sanitary sewer systems, then I might be able to help you.
Even as somebody who studied engineering and will practice as an engineer one day soon, I do not know what the actual jobs people in other engineering disciplines have. So, if I, as somebody who took the fundamental courses in those disciplines, do not know how then is the general public supposed to know what engineers do?
It seems that promoting engineering would be a worthwhile goal, but I am not sure that it is an activity that can be promoted in the same way that medicine (either from an MD or a nursing perspective) gets promoted. Engineering is so misunderstood from a non-engineer's or closely related person's perspective that it has ceased to be viewed as a matter of life and death. (This is true for many engineers also.) However, a small error in a design, in some computer code or in a process control can have fatal impacts.
The difficulty with engineering is that the most visible groupings of engineers to the general public are the professional organizations (e.g., Professional Engineers Ontario or Association of Professional Engineers, Geologists and Geophysicists of Alberta), academics, and cutting-edge entrepreneurs. These groups mostly have other things to deal with than the understanding of what engineering is to society. Although, the professional societies should be concerned about a general lack of understanding.
So how can we address the problems of communicating what engineers do in all fields and the limited views of engineers as pencil pushers?
First, we need to present each discipline of engineering separately. In an age of Internet with its inexpensive options for communications there is no reason to be limited to choosing the "most representative" disciplines to showcase. (On a related note, we need better websites than these: NEM and Ontario NEM.)
Second, we need to be seen to be doing our jobs. I mean that engineers do or ought to be doing creative work that pushes boundaries in an effort to improve the world we live in. However, when our work is boiled down to ticking boxes on a checklist, we are not seen to be providing much of value. Engineering judgement and critical thinking should be obvious in most, if not all, work we do. We should be telling engineering stories; they should be true stories, but that doesn't prevent them from being interesting.
Finally, engineers should be seen as providing something of value. This continues from the previous point because engineering judgement and critical thinking are valuable contributions. If the client could do these things on their own, they would not need to hire an engineer. It comes down to providing what the client needs in the best way possible and getting the client to understand why that way will provide the best outcome for the client and for society at large.
So to conclude, engineers need to get out and let people know what they do. We should do our work such that it provides a positive impact on society, and this is done by starting with fundamentals and building up from there.