HILL AIR FORCE BASE — Engineers often perform heroic works behind the scenes, with the public oblivious to the effects on everyone’s daily lives. Consequently, Engineering Week was born across the nation more than 60 years ago, and is still going strong in an effort to shed some light on the work of engineers.
“We need to celebrate what engineers bring to us as a society, especially since a lot of work on the military side happens behind closed doors, yet massive amounts of work have been done by engineers when you eventually see an airplane,” said Robert Fabian, organizer of Utah’s Engineers Week. “We want to reinforce their work to the next generation.”
Last week, a host of Northern Utah organizations, corporations and student groups from area universities participated in demonstrations, competitions and lectures in hopes of garnering more interest and understanding of the field for those entering the profession.
“Most defense contractors have a hard time filling engineering slots, not that Utah isn’t producing engineers, but because the demand is sky high,” Fabian said. “We’ve been coordinating with BAE Systems and universities on their engineering programs to make sure they are teaching their graduate engineers things needed in the industry.”
During one of the presentations, Dr. Christine Hailey, dean and professor of the College of Engineering at Utah State University, spoke to many involved in recruiting new engineers. Though her lecture was intended to focus on hiring more women in the engineering field, she said her message about changing the perception of engineers and using the right messages to recruit future engineers can be applied to both genders.
Hailey pointed out some recent polling data that showed the public believes engineers are not as engaged with societal and community concerns as are careers in medical, nursing, science or teaching fields.
“So many people resonate with becoming a medical doctor and working with premature babies, but have you ever been in the preemie baby ward? They are full of tubes and hooked up to machines, because at the back end, who is keeping them alive?” pointed out Hailey. “It’s the engineers that really have a positive effect on keeping those babies alive.”
Hailey said the message needs to be clear that few professions turn so many ideas into reality, and few have such a direct and positive impact on people’s everyday lives.
“Even in the defense business, you are keeping the country safer, but it’s not as clear as if I were flying an F-16 or saving babies,” Hailey said to fellow engineers in the audience. “Engineers tend to be one step removed because we design the planes, weapons and products around us.”
Another common problem for students looking at future engineering careers, Hailey said, is based on perception.
“Our high school kids think you have to be in the top 10 percent of all intellectual people on the planet and be good at math and science. So many people feel they aren’t smart enough to be engineers,” Hailey said. “That’s not the case, though. It takes a commitment and a willingness to follow the degree path and see the end result of being able to do so many great things.”
Hailey sees the success that is coming from STEM education for students, but there are still messages that need to be changed when recruiting students into engineering programs.
“Most students understand that engineers design and build things, but they have a limited sense of the broader scope of what engineers really do,” Hailey said. “Our language can shape reality. We need to frame the career of engineering first and foremost as innovative and solving critical challenges this country faces and talking about the kinds of work that can and must be done before you talk about how you get there.”