Life takes engineering

changingconversationTeachers change lives.  Doctors cure, nurses care. Firemen are heroic.  What do engineers do?  Engineers shape the future.

Most of the things that engineers do are taken for granted.  I would like to think that we are so good at it that people don’t notice anymore.  Occasionally things go wrong and we get the blame but almost everything you do in life from the moment you are born is shaped by engineering.  A structural engineer designed the structure in which you were born, a team of mechanical engineers designed the vehicle you made your first journey in, if you needed medication a team of chemical engineers designed the factory that produced them and so on through life.  You can repeat the process for an average day – who designed the production system that made the bed you slept on, the alarm clock that woke you, runs the utilities that provided hot water to wash in, designed the supply chain that delivered food to your breakfast table and so on through the day?  Yes, engineers.

Maybe engineering is so ubiquitous that it is difficult to grasp its essence.  The engineering community spends hundreds of millions of dollars annually to promote public understanding of engineering with little measurable impact on young people, according to the US National Academy of Engineering.  Their report called ‘Changing the Conversation‘ recommends using four tag-lines to promote engineering:

1. Engineers make a world of difference.

2. Engineers are creative problem solvers.

3. Engineers help shape the future.

4. Engineering is essential to our health, happiness and safety.

About 40% of their survey groups found these tag-lines ‘very appealing’.  So perhaps none of them really resonated.  Oh, but now I am being an engineer and analysing the data in order to make a very rational, reasoned decision when instead I should be employing my creative, imaginative side.  Maybe we are back to poetaster engineers [see my posting on ‘Poetasting engineers‘ on March 4th, 2015].  As a profession we are not good with words [see last week’s posting entitled ‘Reader, Reader, Reader] and cannot dream up a catchy memorable tag-line.

What do you think?

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4 comments

  1. Einstein once said: “A cow does not care about the botany of the grass she is feeding on” and meant precisely the attitude people adopt: “Why care about engineering as long as the bloody thing works?” So I think it is not about a lack of understanding but more about a lack of curiosity! WHY does it work? HOW does it work?

  2. I have had a number of conversations recently with folks from other disciplines that can be paraphrased as ‘well that can just be engineered’. I think people have become so used to things ‘just working’ that the WHY and the HOW are no longer important. If I cast my mind back to my childhood, I remember holiday trips to Devon from North West England which seemed to be a massive trauma for my parents due to concerns about the car being able to make it (in which case it was important to understand HOW it worked and WHY it had gone wrong as there was a strong possibilitythat some form of roadside repairs would be required). Today, I wouldn’t think twice about jumping in my car to head for the Plymouth ferry to Roscoff (the voice of experience) and I would expect to get there without issue and then drive several 100 miles into France to the destination holiday cottage. Maybe we need to engineer in some deliberate faults to everyday items to get people thinking again ;o)?

    All of that said, the sorts of messages described above are talked through to our applicants at the University and there are usually a small number of paretns/students that come and talk afterwards having had a ‘light-on’ moment of understanding.

    The rot starts early, I think. But that is a completely different rant about my experience of my children’s Primary School Maths classes….

  3. I also have memories of my parents’ trepidation about long distance car journeys while my own experience includes road trips of thousands of miles across north America without any incidents, at least not due to breakdowns. I am in Chennai, India at the moment and while reading a national newspaper during breakfast in my hotel, I noticed an announcement of power shutdowns between 9am and 2pm for a number of areas in Chennai. This reminded me of doing homework by candlelight when I was a child because of power shutdowns. These were not engineering failures but a consequence of strikes by workers, but perhaps they made people aware of the infrastructure on which society depends. Not that I am suggesting engineers switch off services to make society more aware of its dependence on them!

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