Op-Ed: They Said What?

Geoffrey Orsak
 Geoffrey C. Orsak
Here is some happy news. A new national survey shows Americans agree with engineering experts that society's highest priorities include making new green energy sources viable, improving urban infrastructure, providing clean water to the world and fighting disease. But this same survey also reveals that nearly half of all Americans think another country has a better shot at delivering on them — maybe Japan or China.

Duke University's Pratt School of Engineering commissioned Hart Research Assoc. to measure Americans' attitudes toward engineering and the profession's role in solving the world's toughest problems. You have to be careful about imposing your own biases on the results of any questionnaire, but what jumps out at me from this survey is that people don't know what we do; don't believe we're better than we were in the 20th century; and don't think engineering is particularly appealing to young people as a career.

In fact, only 31 percent of adults with some college education believe we are more competitive today than we were in past generations. Only 45 percent of the college-educated respondents believe the U.S. will continue to lead the world. With no surprise, our country's education system receives most of the blame with 38 percent of those surveyed pointing a finger in its dismal direction.

Even though they freely expressed doubt about our future, few of the Americans in this survey acknowledged any real familiarity with engineering. Shocked? What people "know" about engineering is sadly based on old stereotypes and perceptions.

The present reality we must face is that most Americans really don't care about engineering — they just want us to get the job done and then get back in our cubicles.

Should we care? Of course. Fewer kids today are interested in tackling the universal challenges found in engineering and won't, so long as these perceptions continue to exist in our society.

As distasteful as it might seem, we must be willing to use the full power of modern media to rebrand the American engineer. Quite honestly, it is getting tiresome having to always bring up the good old days, when the challenge of the early space program turned engineering, however briefly, into a heroic profession. It's no coincidence we accomplished our greatest achievements when people cheered for our success. To solve the massive problems the world faces today will require the same kind of national enthusiasm that kept us working round-the-clock four decades ago.

For the sake of our country, and those around the globe who depend on our creativity to improve their lives, we must create a more exciting and dynamic culture within engineering to reignite national interest in our efforts. The Hart report shows Americans agree on our technological priorities, they're just not sure we have the team to get the job done. While we know better, in this political era, we are going to need their support. This challenge is only going to be met by making the effort to share our individual stories with friends, neighbors and kids everywhere we go.

It is time to stop being shy. Toot your horns engineers ... you invented them after all.