3:57 PM

Engineers Changing the Conversation

As someone who has studied engineers and engineering for a long time now, and also has a scholarly interest in popular culture (films, books, television) I've noticed that engineers in powerful spots--those in the National Academy of Engineering (NAE), or at the National Science Foundation, or elsewhere--are particularly concerned with how they appear to the general public.  Specifically, it is my sense that they are most worried about being invisible, but they're certainly also worried about negative connotations that might adhere to engineers:  that they are mostly white, mostly male, and mostly very technically narrow (nerdy?).

Engineers are also frequently worried about how they stack up against other professionals.  Doctors?  Plenty of television shows, movies, and books about them.  Same with lawyers (though not always positive depictions, right?) and scientists.  But there aren't a lot of engineers visible in the culture.

There's MacGyver, of course:

And, in an article I wrote once in a book about engineering, there are a handful of films that feature--prominently, or not so prominently, engineers and engineering.  The list I came up with is as follows:

Le Voyage dans la Lune (Trip to the Moon, 1902)
The Iron Horse (1924)
Metropolis (1926)
The Story of Alexander Graham Bell (1939)
Young Tom Edison (1940)
Western Union (1941)
The Fountainhead (1949)
No Highway in the Sky (1951)
The Dambusters (1955)
The Spirit of St. Louis (1957)
The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)
The Time Machine (1960)
Hellfighters (1968)
Colossus:  The Forbin Project (1970)
Tron (1982): [h/t Benito]
War Games (1983)
The Right Stuff (1983)
Emerald Forest (1985)
Pale Rider (1985)
Top Gun (1986)
Fat Man and Little Boy (1989)
Apollo 13 (1995)
October Sky (1998)
Pi (1998)
Space Cowboys (2000)
Spider-Man (2002)
Paycheck (2003)  [h/t:  Benito]
Spider-Man 2 (2004)
Primer (2004)
Spider-Man 3 (2007)
Iron Man (2008) [h/t:  Michelle]

If you know of others, let me know.   In any case, it's not a very long list, compared with how many you could find featuring doctors or lawyers, or even scientists.

I think a lot of the concern over public perceptions of engineering has to do with engineers wanting respect and recognition for the hard and important work they do.  And, in my opinion, engineers are in fact frequently absent in prominent public debates over science and technology, or they are mistaken for scientists, or they are not labelled as engineers.  This may have something to do with how the profession trains itself, or with how it views the public, or with how the public views them.

But public perception also affects things like recruitment and retention.  And many engineers are concerned that the United States won't be able to recruit as many engineers as it needs to remain competitive.  Whether this is true is up for debate, but it's an argument you hear frequently coming from places like the NAE.

Which is why I think the Changing the Conversation (CTC) project, sponsored by the National Science Foundation and prompted by a report issued by the NAE, is so interesting.  It's intended to be a resource for engineers, educators, media professionals, and others interested in clarifying and promoting messages about engineering.

For example, there is a page of sample messages or talking points about engineering.  These messages were tested with sample audiences to test their effectiveness.

So, what do you think?  Will this matter?  How would it be used by communicators, and to what ends?

And why do you think engineers are largely invisible or marginalized in popular culture and in discussions about science and technology?

Comments (3)

Ironman is the best bad-ass engineer movie in my opinion. He is a super glorified mechanical engineer from MIT that has lots of money and is very cocky about how smart he is. They definitely need more movies like that for engineers

Tron (1982) concerns a computer engineer that enters a computer world to get the credit he is due for his accomplishments.

Paycheck (2003) is about an optics engineer who fights the company he works for when they try to steal his work and use it to their benefit.

The Day After Tomorrow (2004) includes a weather scientist who goes on a dangerous journey after predicting a crazy storm.

I, Robot (2004) concerns a cop who investigates the death of a scientist who leaves clues for the cop to use to solve the mystery.

Gattaca (1997) concerns a man living in a genetically-engineered world who tries to become an astronaut.

The Island (2005) depicts a world where people live in a genetically engineered world and they try to escape its confines.

I am Legend (2007) tells the story of a scientist living in a zombie-infested city as he searches for a cure.

Meet the Robinsons (2007) is an animated film that focuses on an inventor and the troubles he encounters during a trip to the future.

Avatar (2009) takes place on a distant planet where scientists engineer avatars to communicate with the indigenous population.

Those are a few I could think of. I enjoyed most of those flicks. Their depiction of engineers and scientists varies, but not all are stereotyped as nerdy (I am Legend for instance).

Ben and Michelle, thanks for these! I added some in the list.

I hesitated on a few of yours, Ben, because they present a classification problem. This is a list of engineers, not scientists, though as we discussed in class the line between the two is blurry. I struggle with this list because rarely is the engineer actually identified as such, and my sense is that the audience often experiences the engineer as a "scientist" or "inventor." So the definition is slippery.

And tons of films deal with the engineered world, certainly, without actually dealing with engineers or engineering. Engineers, as agents, are frequently invisible.

I'll have to think more about this. But the additions are most welcome.