Changing the Conversation at CU-Boulder - A Journey to Capitalize Upon NAE Messaging Concepts

Nathan  Kahl Posted on November 22, 2010 by Nathan Kahl

Rebranding of the engineering experience at CU-Boulder to reflect NAE’s Changing the Conversation started to take hold in 2008. A series of meetings were held within engineering to make staff and faculty aware of CTC research findings, and to unveil Engineer Your Life graphics that exemplify the CTC messaging in a gender-friendly manner. Many one-on-one conversations took place between the faculty member who served on the CTC committee and the engineering communications staff — pushing for aligning the college’s communications with the CTC report findings. 

Personalizing the CTC Message through Hands-on Learning.

After convincing the communications staff to take risks with CTC messaging approaches, a series of hands-on messaging workshops was launched in which engineering faculty and staff (including many not directly responsible for communications or recruiting) were challenged to create CTC-informed posters and messaging slogans that conveyed the opportunities and excitement of an engineering career to underrepresented students, parents, teachers and other constituent groups. Posters were designed through small group brainstorming, and sketched out using newsprint and colored markers. This process definitely unleashed the creativity of the participants. Fortunately, participants found the workshops to be fun and creative.

Several concepts emerged from the workshops which ultimately found their way into new engineering recruiting brochures and postcards created by a professional designer from the engineering communications team. An example aspirational workshop message that emerged is our now much-used  “How will the world CU?” slogan, which on recruiting postcards is coupled with CTC messaging.

Providing Messaging Leadership.

Also, brief conversations about changing our college’s messaging to adopt CTC messaging were held during our deans and chair meetings, and newly-developed communications tools were shared with them. Fortunately, being NAE-driven carried weight, and the leadership team was in. And, departmental staff who had heard about the college’s messaging initiative found themselves under increasing pressure from their department chairs to reach out to underrepresented students. Thus, they independently began to consult with the college’s communication team to develop more creative, inclusive materials for their own department’s use.

Our department of Electrical and Computer Engineering was an early embracer of the new messaging; they created an edgy and eye-catching postcard to advertise their spring 2009 design expo to high school students. Likewise, the Mechanical Engineering department created a brochure to align with the CTC messaging after finding their old materials were not attracting women or minority students.

Concurrently, in late 2008 the College created new messaging postcards for recruiting purposes, tailoring Engineer Your Life designs with images of our own diverse engineering students, depicting their lives beyond academics (…and I’m a salsa dancer, and a cyclist and a pilot), coupled with CTC messages such as:

  • "Make a world of difference" — Amelia Lyons travelled to Nepal with CU’s chapter of Engineers Without Borders to help a village obtain clean drinking water
  • "Creativity has its rewards" — CU student Jacob Melvin used engineering and animation to land his dream job at Dreamworks…

Defining the Theme & Rolling it Out Pervasively

...“Engineers make a world of difference” and “engineers help shape the future” resonate with our campus and community’s green, renewable energy focus

Our college team chose to apply CTC messaging that is aspirational in nature, purposely veering from the traditional “math is rigorous – get over it” theme too often communicated by engineering. Two CTC messages and one tagline have become pervasive in our communications: “engineers make a world of difference” and “engineers help shape the future” resonate with our campus and community’s green, renewable energy focus, while the tagline “because dreams need doing” is specifically exploited because it resonated as a strong, aspirational, gender-balanced tagline in the CTC study.

Througout our extensive K-12 engineering education initiative, we consistently employ the aspirational tagline “Engineering…Because Dreams Need Doing.” Again, this was selected because initial tagline testing indicated a gender-balanced response. And, the response of our students is positive. When a group of men in a design class were asked what they thought of our coral and gold postcard, they concluded that “any place that uses these will attract women, and that’s good with us.”

These postcards have subsequently been extensively used in the recruiting of minority and female students, employing a student-to-student approach for personalizing the message following individual phone calls.

The roll-out of messaging work has continued, and CTC messages very much drive all aspects of our recruiting materials — every letter, every presentation, every poster. CTC has becomes who we are and how we view the role of engineers and engineering in the world. . . very much drives with a series of video vignettes depicting underrepresented students in engineering, and changes in messaging on the college website and Facebook page. These efforts are getting much positive feedback, and although there is much more to be done to cement the changes throughout the entire college, we feel we are on the right path and won’t be going back to the old ways!

Making Marketing Attractive to Engineers [or not]

While the path forward may seem obvious for purposes of broadening participation in engineering, convincing engineers to buy into marketing the messages is not that straight forward. An example of a typical struggle is the TeachEngineering digital library, where the multi-institutional team readily bought into the idea of editing the most-used K-12 engineering lessons and hands-on activities to communicate the CTC spirit throughout the curriculum — a huge investment of resources. But when challenged to go to the next step to overtly communicate CTC messages within the curriculum, several team members hesitated, feeling it was a bit sleazy to actually market engineering. So, two steps forward, one back. Change is not easy.

Measuring Impact

Student Enrollment

Female Students
up 26%

Minority Students
up 67%

While it is not possible to sort out the direct impact of changing our messaging to be more engaging and relevant to the lives of youth, fall 2009 and 2010 enrollment shows a sharp increase in our numbers of women engineering students — up from our prior five year average of 19% to 24%, and in our representation of minority students — up 67% in 2010 from our five-year average. Certainly, some of the latter is also due to innovative programming with our performance-enhancing year GoldShirt program, but that program is totally messaged through the CTC lens. 

Lessons Learned

Our biggest lesson is that it took a couple of years for the CTC approach to stick and become pervasive in how we think, in addition to what we do.

Our advice is to initially rely on a couple of passionate advocates to lead the change, and commit to staying the course. This definitely requires leadership; it has to come from the top and bottom in the organization. And, we suggest colleges invest in several highly visible, edgy CTC-driven communications pieces to build advocacy, pride and excitement within all levels of the organization. These should not be designed by committee — reach out, take chances, and engage professional designers to help your college find the look and feel that defines the niche you want to create in the marketplace. Leading the CTC-driven change is fun and rewarding — and a lot of work.

For More Information:

Jackie Sullivan
Associate Dean, College of Engineering
Unviersity of Colorado, Boulder


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