Public (Mis)Understanding of Engineering

 

Data collected over many years provide evidence that, despite the impact of engineering on our daily lives, most Americans do not understand what engineers do and are largely unaware of the opportunities available through an engineering education.  

Educational researchers have found that K–12 students and teachers generally have a poor conception of what engineers do. In one study, a majority of K-12 students expressed the view that engineers build buildings and fix things, particularly cars, rather than improve existing technologies or design new ones. A small but significant minority of students, about 10 percent, confound engineers with those who drive trains. In another study involving elementary teachers, between 25 and 35 percent identified cleaning teeth, arranging flowers, and selling food as tasks performed by engineers. 

Other research has found both adults and teens strongly connect engineering to mathematics and science skills but do not as readily associate engineering with problem solving, creativity, or having a positive impact on the world.   Polling data comparing scientists and engineers show that the public perceives engineers to be less engaged with societal and community concerns and to play a lesser role in saving lives. This despite the fact that virtually every technology engineers design is intended to meet a societal need or desire, and the bulk of safety-related technologies, from car airbags and the nation’s air traffic management system to food handling equipment and smoke detectors, was designed by engineers.  

The engineering blind spot is also reflected in the media. For example, an analysis of five years’ worth of technology-focused articles appearing in the Science Times section of the New York Times found engineering and engineers were rarely mentioned.  

If young people do not know much about engineering or have a skewed view of what it means to be an engineer, we cannot expect them to seriously consider engineering as a career. And the ability to attract creative young minds to engineering is directly tied to the nation’s innovation capacity, which many experts believe is in decline.  Finally, knowing something about how the human-designed world has been created—and by whom—is a cornerstone of technological literacy, an important attribute for life in the 21st century.