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Engineers getting a makeover

The nation's best and brightest engineers are gathering in Washington this week to figure out how to add some youthful zing to a profession that makes many kids think of slide rules and pocket protectors. As a result of their efforts, engineering's image will be getting a marketing makeover in the months ahead.

How much is that makeover needed? You'd expect engineers to come up with the data to back up their case, and these folks did not disappoint. In one survey of career preferences among 440 college-bound students aged 14 to 18, engineering was ranked last on a list that also included teaching, medicine, law and business. And in a 2006 Harris Poll on occupational prestige, the profession came in No. 10 out of 22 - well behind doctors and scientists (but well ahead of lawyers and, ick, journalists).

One big problem is that engineers are perceived as being - how shall I put this? - too geeky. Kids just don't see engineering as a thrilling profession where you interact with people, help others and do important things. "Many of the kids feel that we are 'desk jockeys,'" said Patrick Natale, executive director of the American Society of Civil Engineers.

To be sure, lots of engineers do slave all day over a hot desktop. But F. Suzanne Jenniches, vice president and general manager of Northrup Grumman's government systems division, argued that the work of an engineer is as important as a doctor's.

"The operating rooms where people's lives are saved are the result of engineering," she said. In fact, engineers played a part in developing every material we touch in daily life, she added.

So what is to be done? At this week's convocation of professional engineering societies, taking place at the National Academy of Engineering, several data-driven projects came to light.

One market research project, funded by the National Science Foundation and carried out by an NAE committee, tested a variety of slogans with focus groups. Among the favorites: "Engineers make a world of difference" ... "Turning ideas into reality" ... "Because dreams need doing."

Keep your eyes out for the bumper stickers. The NAE estimates that a focused marketing campaign should cost about $12 million to $25 million annually for the next two to three years. That may sound like a lot, but the engineering profession is thought to spend about $400 million a year on outreach right now, with little to show for it.

"It's like Brownian motion," said the academy's president, Wm. A. Wulf. "Everybody is going in different directions, and it seems that the net vector is zero." A more focused marketing campaign - encompassing all the sectors of the profession - should make all that outreach more efficient.

Another effort, called the Extraordinary Women Engineers Project, targets girls in middle school and high school. In recent years, female representation in the field has been something of a disappointment: Women enrollment in college engineering programs peaked at about 20 percent in 1999 and has dipped since then.

The academy has set up an "Engineer Girl" Web site to address that interest gap on the middle-school level, and in September a new "Design Your Life" site for high-school girls will be unveiled, Jenniches said. For updates on that front, keep your eye on the Engineers Week Web site. The "Try Engineering" Web site is another resource for kids, parents and teachers.

The Business Roundtable has been looking into yet another engineering-awareness campaign, modeled after the "Intel Inside" campaign for computers. Susan Traiman, director of public policy at the Business Roundtable, said the idea is to add something like a "Powered by Brainwave" tag to products ranging from sneakers to computers, to show that engineers are providing the brain power behind those products.

Quoting a market-tested tagline from the campaign, Traiman said, "Math and science powers virtually everything meaningful in your life."

Purdue University's Leah Jamieson, president of the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers, said the outreach should extend beyond just building another Web site. "How many of us are putting stuff on YouTube?" she asked her colleagues. "Are we doing podcasts?"

Then there's the academic part of the equation: Engineers themselves tend to add to the perception that their work is too hard for mere mortals - and that's a turnoff for the kids. "We can unprogram [the claim that] 'it's hard, but if you work really hard, you might become an engineer' into something more appealing," Jenniches said.

Of course, sometimes the classes really are hard - maybe too hard. The professional engineers said professors may have to dial it down a notch, particularly in the freshman year, in order to promote retention of engineering students.

"It's that freshman calculus course that's weeding the kids out," Traiman said.

"The electromagnetic physics course is a tough weeder-outer," Natale added.

In addition to cool slogans and kinder, gentler courses, the profession could benefit by having more role models for the kids. "There is no 'public face' of engineering," Natale said.

Greg Pearson, senior program officer for the NAE, said there should be a diverse set of role models - to show that women and minorities as well as white guys can excel in engineering. "It's going to be public faces," he said, emphasizing the plural.

Personally, the most public faces that come to my mind are those of Dilbert and his co-workers - and although they're great for a laugh, I'm not sure they're in the same league as the TV stars you see on "Law and Order" and "E.R." Who would you nominate as the celebrity spokespeople for engineering? Bill Gates? Steve Jobs? Hedy LamarrMacGyver? Add your picks - as well as your general observations on the state of engineering and the profession's public image - in the comments section below.