An Interview with Dr. Don Giddens, Dean of the College of Engineering
Atlanta (September 1, 2009) —Rachael Pocklington
Communications, Parents Program
In order to stay ahead of the innovation curve, the engineering profession is increasingly reliant upon the power of communication to attract and sculpt the next generation of engineers. In Changing the Conversation, the National Academy of Engineers, chaired by Dr. Don Giddens, dean of the College of Engineering at Georgia Tech, explores how messaging and practical communication skills can help change perceptions and engage students in a fulfilling career in engineering. Last summer, I had the opportunity to interview Dean Giddens to gain insight into the learning outcomes of this effort to improve public understanding of the profession. Excerpts from our conversation are below.
What prompted you and the committee, Committee of Public Understanding of Engineering Messages, to explore how to literally change the conversation about engineering?
There is a lot of concern about attracting and educating the next generation of engineers. In particular, there is a real need to attract more females and under-represented minorities into our profession. The National Academy of Engineering was funded by the National Science Foundation to develop and test messages which would help improve how the public - grade school students, teachers, parents, and legislators - perceives the profession and to generate interest among desired audiences.
What did you discover while testing these messages?
We developed a “positioning statement” for engineering using marketing principles, and then we tested several messages using various research methods among several groups including adults and students from different ethnic backgrounds and education levels. It became very clear how critical it is to avoid the common engineering stereotypes. For example, everybody already understands how important math and science are to the profession. I think there has been too much emphasis on the rather difficult aspects of engineering and less emphasis on the creative characteristics. Now is the time to start talking about the real-world impact and human aspects of engineering. Engineering is ubiquitous, yet really not well understood by most. If we can make engineering more accessible and relevant, we shall attract a greater talent pool interested in pursuing this extremely worthwhile career.
While the goal of the committee was not to actually implement the messaging, can you provide good examples of those who are doing a good job communicating with their audiences?
Exxon Mobil has a series of commercials that really speak to the human element of engineering. They feature real employees - engineers and scientists - from around the world in several of their advertisements. It may sound simple, but taking the personal approach and showcasing your diverse engineering staff really makes a difference - viewers can relate.
Here at Georgia Tech, we aired a public service announcement last fall that features a young woman daydreaming in one of her classes about the trajectory of the Rambling Wreck. We received a lot of good comments on that announcement - it resonated with the viewers. We should see more of these messages that show the human face of engineering in the future.
Do those in the industry support taking fairly large steps and moving beyond the conventional conceptions to change the way engineering is perceived?
Yes, philosophically, industry is very interested in reaching out to the public in a compelling manner. The more diverse the engineering teams, the better the product. There are challenges to “changing the conversation” about engineering, however. One of the biggest obstacles will be adopting a coordinated communication approach among all the stakeholders such as corporations, educators, and other opinion leaders. It will take funding and time.
As you and your team explored how to make engineering relevant and appealing to target audiences - were there any surprises?
We discovered just how important wording really is. Among the several taglines we tested were “Turning ideas into reality” and “Because dreams need doing.” The two statements essentially represent the same meaning. One tagline scored very high among all students and adults; the other tagline scored high with students but was much less appealing among adults.
Another peculiar finding was that Hispanic females in the U.S. are among the least interested in pursuing a career in engineering. Conversely, Hispanic females in Central and South America readily pursue engineering careers. It will be important for recruitment efforts to identify what is driving this difference.
Lastly and one of the more interesting and quite humorous findings was that “outsiders” don’t associate engineers with being nerds or geeks - only the profession does! Luckily, we don’t have to change any public negative associations about engineers being dull.
The book concludes with several recommendations including promoting messages like “Engineers make a world of difference,” developing a messaging tool kit and executing a campaign - how successful have these recommendations been received and have they been implemented?
The messages that tested well are being adopted both in the corporate and educational fields of engineering. The toolkit is essential but will require additional funding for testing and implementation. There have also been several workshops regarding messaging and communication with the public, although those have been fairly informal. The next steps will be to strengthen the legs of this effort, secure more sponsorships and funding, and convene more formal workshops among industry influencers.
There is significant opportunity to evolve the perceptions among prospective engineers and their principal influencers - their parents. What would you like parents to know about engineering as a fulfilling career choice?
First, I think we all need to be reminded how engineering impacts just about every aspect of our lives. We take a lot for granted - for instance, clean water made possible through engineering has saved more lives than any innovation in modern medicine. In addition to the real-world benefits, students should also understand that engineering is actually quite exciting and creative - they could create the next mobile device or the next alternative energy generator! Secondly, a career in engineering also requires more personal interactions than one might initially think. Engineering today is not a stand-alone profession - in fact, it is very much a contact sport. The successful engineers of tomorrow will need to think beyond math and science. They will need to embrace diversity and have the interpersonal and team skills needed to compete in this rapidly evolving and global environment.
For more information on Changing the Conversation, please visit The National Academies Press Web site. For information on the National Academy of Engineering, visit www.nae.edu.
For more information contact:
- Rachael Pocklington
Contact Rachael Pocklington