Changing the Conversation: From Research to Action

Project Summary

A Project of the 
National Academy of Engineering

 U.S. economic strength, national security, and quality of life are to a great extent the result of the country’s long history of successful technological innovation, which relies greatly on engineering know-how. Polling and other research over the past decade have consistently shown that adults and children have a limited understanding of what engineers do and how engineering improves the world. Poor understanding of engineering has potentially serious consequences related to attracting young Americans—particularly women and under-represented minorities—into engineering-related careers and supporting the nation’s ability to maintain its capacity for technological advance. This situation has raised serious concern among U.S. engineering colleges, industries and federal agencies that depend on engineering talent, K-12 educators, policy makers, and organizations whose missions include raising the general level of technological and scientific literacy.

One important contributor to poor public understanding of engineering is the manner in which the engineering community has historically presented itself to the public. The predominant messages have focused on the need for strong math and science skills or touted the field’s career potential. A 2008 National Academy of Engineering report, Changing the Conversation: Messages for Improving Public Understanding of Engineering, argues that engineering must reposition itself in order to remain vital. The report presents four new messages and a number of shorter taglines for communicating to the public. All were developed through qualitative and quantitative research methods. 

The new messages recast engineering as inherently creative and concerned with human welfare, as well as an emotionally satisfying calling. They are:

  • Engineers make a world of difference;
  • Engineers are creative problem-solvers;
  • Engineers help shape the future; and
  • Engineering is essential to our health, happiness, and safety.

The report has stimulated considerable interest among segments of the engineering community, and some organizations have adopted the project’s messages in their outreach. Overall, however, the report’s impact has fallen short of its potential to galvanize action by the broader engineering community. The current project is intended to remedy that situation by 1) producing an online messaging resource (“toolkit”) for use by the engineering community, 2) sponsoring a high-level stakeholders’ workshop to develop support for a coordinated, national messaging campaign, and 3) publishing an “Action Plan” containing strategic and tactical recommendations for how the engineering community can most effectively promote a more positive and accurate image of engineering.

The project is funded by the National Science Foundation and is overseen by a 10-member advisory committee co-chaired by Ellen Kullman, Chair of the Board and CEO, DuPont, and Charles M. Vest, President, National Academy of Engineering.