How Others See Us


June 2013

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Sometimes when I speak to audiences about the portrayal of engineers in movies and television I use an example that was first suggested to me by a good colleague, Jon Wickert, at Iowa State University. The example shows the actor Michael Douglas in three different roles. In the first movie, “The American President” (1995), he plays an American president, Andrew Shepherd. Andy is smart, witty, kind, and courageous—and difficult not to like. The next movie is “Wall Street” (1987). In this movie, Douglas plays stockbroker Gordon Gekko and delivers the now-classic speech that “greed is good.” Gordon Gekko is no Andy Shepherd. He’s not a nice guy, but he’s rich and Douglas, again, looks his best. In the third movie, “Falling Down” (1993), Douglas plays a laid-off engineer, William “D-FENS” Foster, who exacts revenge on an array of obnoxious people who come into his life. The plot is not what interests me but rather the depiction of D-FENS. Douglas is no longer well groomed or well dressed. He wears an engineer’s “uniform” of a buzz-cut, thick glasses, and a short-sleeve white shirt complete with a pocket protector. It is hard to imagine that any young person left this movie wanting to grow up like D-FENS.

ASME's International Human Powered Vehicle Challenge (HPVC) is one of the contests, that present engineering as an attractive career option. Image: Mark Palmquist

ASME's International Human Powered Vehicle Challenge (HPVC) is one of the contests that present engineering as an attractive career option. Image: Mark Palmquist

The point of this is that to grow and diversify the supply of engineers, it would help if the portrayal of engineers in popular media was more realistic. The need for engineers is great. Each year in the U.S. we graduate about 83,000 new engineers with bachelor’s degrees, according to the American Society of Engineering Education’s Profiles of Engineering and Engineering Technology Colleges. That may seem like a lot, but it is not enough to meet the nation’s demand for engineering talent, and there is a call from the National Science Foundation and the President’s Council on Jobs and Competitiveness to increase that number by 10,000.

To put that in context, 10,000 graduates is roughly the combined output of the eight largest engineering colleges in the U.S., one of which, Virginia Tech, I am privileged to lead. The others are: Georgia Tech, Penn State, Purdue, Illinois (Urbana-Champaign), Michigan, North Carolina State, and Texas A&M. It will be no small task finding that much growth.

According to ASEE, among the 83,000 graduates, 18.4 percent were female, 4.0 percent African-American, and 8.5 percent Hispanic. All three groups are severely underrepresented. While the percentage of Hispanics has grown measurably over the last decade, the percentage of women has been flat and the percentage of African-Americans has been in decline. There are many factors contributing to the stagnation in the diversity of American-educated engineers, one of which is the portrayal of engineers in popular media. The fact is that it is exceedingly rare to find an actress playing an engineer worth emulating; same goes for members of underrepresented minority groups.

But help is on the way. I grew up in an age of three television stations. Today there are hundreds of channels with shows like “Myth-Busters,” “Build It Bigger,” “Extreme Machines,” “How It’s Made,” “All Girls Garage,” and others.

Plus, each day there are countless postings to the Internet of engineering projects and the people who do the work. In many cases it is peer-to-peer, such as when one group of teenagers shows others the amazing work that they did in the First Robotics Competition. There is also the inspiring work to be found in organizations like Engineers Without Borders and Engineering for Change. While not meant as entertainment, it is nevertheless compelling viewing. The Internet provides the means of showing people, young and old, many of the wonderful things that engineers do.

We still have a lot of work to diversify our profession, but for the first time in my life I think that we are getting more lift than drag from the depiction of engineers in mass media. I look forward to getting to know these engineers—my new colleagues.

Richard Benson is the dean of the College of Engineering at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University.

Click here to read the most recent issue of Mechanical Engineering.

The point of this is that to grow and diversify the supply of engineers, it would help if the portrayal of engineers in popular media was more realistic.

 
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by Richard Benson