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Engineering has an image problem that needs fixing

By David Blockley

Engineering is at the very heart of our society. Unfortunately many people don’t see it that way because engineering has an image problem. But why does that matter?

One reason is the projected serious shortfall in qualified engineers.  Another reason is that science, technology, and engineering are often conflated in the media, therefore confusing career pathways.

First, let’s check the idea that engineering is at the heart of our society.  Engineering is, in its most general sense, turning an idea into a reality – creating and using tools to accomplish a task or fulfil a purpose.  Man’s ability to make tools is remarkable. But it is his ingenious ability to make sense of the world and use his tools to make even more sense and even more ingenious tools, that makes him exceptional. To paraphrase Winston Churchill ‘we shape our tools and thereafter they shape us’.

One only has to think of the railways, the telephone or the computer to realise that technical change profoundly affects social change. Engineering is a value laden social activity – our tools have evolved with us and are totally embedded in their historical, social and cultural context. Our way of life, the objects we use, the understanding and knowledge we gain, go hand-in-hand. For example the railways changed the places people chose to live and to take seaside holidays. Different kinds of fresh food, newspapers and mail were distributed quicker than ever before.

Like most of us, engineers will grumble about work, but in my experience, most of my fellow engineers find the innovative problem solving challenges of their work stimulating and engaging. The engineer entrepreneur James Dyson agrees; his foundation works to inspire and support future Edisons and Brunels.

If engineering is important and interesting then why does it have such a poor image?

Of course there are no simple answers. But there are three that, I think, are important. First, collectively we engineers are not as good as we need to be at explaining to others what we do. Second; science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) are intertwined in a way that needs disentangling. Third, the media talk mainly of science and technology. If engineering makes the headline news then it rarely gets reported as engineering but rather as science or technology. Perversely quite a lot of reported science is actually engineering (e.g. genetic engineering).

The dictionary definitions are clear enough. Science is a branch of knowledge which is systematic, testable and objective. Technology is the application of science for practical purposes. Engineering is the art and science of making things such as engines, bridges, aeroplanes etc. Mathematics is the logical systematic study of relationships between numbers, shapes and processes expressed symbolically. So I think we have to conclude that the cloud around the use of these terms derives from the history of their development.

Philosophers of science have largely dismissed engineering and technology as ‘merely’ applied science. An exception is Carl Mitcham who examined technology from four perspectives – as objects, knowledge, activity, and interestingly as an expression of human will. Clearly technical objects are artefacts. Technical knowledge is specialised and it works. Technological activity includes crafting, inventing, designing etc. Technology as expressing human will is less obvious perhaps – but, in my opinion, here lies the key to disentangling STEM – human will defines purpose. When methods seem indistinguishable, individual purposes are usually quite distinct.

Different things motivate different people.  The purpose of science is to know by producing ‘objects’ of theory or ‘knowledge’.  The purpose of mathematics is clear, unambiguous and precise reasoning.  The purpose of engineering and of technology is to produce ‘objects’ that are useful physical tools with other qualities such as being safe, affordable and sustainable. Science is motivated by curiosity whereas engineering and technology is motivated by wanting to make something to improve the human condition. Of course the two are not independent but the differences are important when considering a career.

Technicians and technologists are important and valued members of any project team but in the UK and in many parts of the world their scope of work is less than that of chartered engineers. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology graduates engineers not technologists.  The equivalent body to the Royal Society for science is the Royal Academy of Engineering. There is a mismatch between how people outside science, engineering and technology talk and report STEM and how people within engineering and technology become qualified and the responsibilities they undertake.

The media influence how we think and what we value and so they influence career choices.  There do not appear to be media outlets with an engineering correspondent. Technology correspondents report on digital systems. Engineering is reported variously by industry, science, environment, and transport correspondents so engineering issues are either squeezed out or reported from an inappropriate perspective. Does the BBC see engineering at the heart of society? Since 1942 influential and interesting guests have been choosing Desert Island Discs. Of the 2950 guests most (1232) have understandably been stage, screen and radio personalities. Just 82 were scientists with 28 medics and 11 engineers. But 6 of the 11 were architects and not professionally qualified as engineers. So in over 60 years the BBC thinks that just 5 engineers are interesting enough to be on the programme – hardly an endorsement of the pivotal importance of engineering.

If we want to recruit more young people into engineering we need to fix its image.  How?  C’mon you engineers – we need to tell our stories and we need to campaign for some changes by those who run our TV, radio and newspapers.

Professor David Blockley is an engineer and an academic scientist. He has been Head of the Department of Civil Engineering and Dean of the Faculty of Engineering at the University of Bristol. He is a Fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering, the Institution of Civil Engineers, the Institution of Structural Engineers, and the Royal Society of Arts. He has written four books including Engineering: A Very Short Introduction and Bridges: The science and art of the world’s most inspiring structures.

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Image credit: By Michiel Hendryckx (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

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