NEM 2012. We’re in the home stretch. It’s been a busy month across the province, and it’s been no exception in Waterloo Region. One of our top goals this year, for NEM Ontario, was to start re-branding the profession of engineering. Our tagline is “THIS is engineering.” To wit, it’s not your mom or dad’s engineering anymore. It’s time to start throwing out the old stereotypes and take a close, hard look at what it’s been changing into over the last decade or two.
Stereotype #1: Engineers are geeks, nerds.
Truth: Engineers have embraced their geekness, but in 2012, it’s cool to be a geek, to be smart, to be an engineer. Hackerspaces, code parties (and no, I’m not talking about brogramming) and the ability to speak astrophysics are much esteemed these days. And why? Because it’s geeks who are changing the way our world works, and have the ability to make it better. I’d say that’s pretty cool, no?
Stereotype #2: Engineers are loners with no social skills.
Truth: Increasingly, the world is becoming more collaborative and less competitive. A recent study found that this particular stereotype drives unproductive behaviours, and it’s important that we change our views in order to facilitate future successes.
“The change we need is helping to put new kinds of stereotypes and images of what it means to be an engineer into the culture so students can reflect on those and think about changing their work practices to align with what we really want engineers to be. It’s important for organizations to get involved with engineering education, providing internships and co-op opportunities, because it allows students to see early on other images of engineering so they can see that there are images of engineers out there other than the expert loner.”
- Paul Leonardi, Breed Junior Chair in Design at Northwestern University’s McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science
When I look around at many of the people I interact with daily in our local tech community, I see example after example of smart, driven folks (often engineers) who’ve learned to collaborate within their teams and across organizational boundaries. This can only be a good thing.
Stereotype #3: Engineers are men.
Truth: Well, this one’s still often true. In Canada in 2010, we were sitting at about 17% female enrolment in engineering at the university level. But you know what? This is one we can change. And it’s vitally important we do so. From a very early age we are modelling to our children what acceptable gender roles are, and too often – even if we don’t mean to – we’re giving signals to our girls that math and science aren’t the most suitable choices. Those girls that do follow the STEM path are facing an uphill battle: fighting stereotypes, hanging out with the boys when maybe they’d rather be with the girls, and lack of mentorship. We need to start early, and demonstrate to our girls that these are viable career choices.
Stereotype #4: Engineering is boring.
Truth: Nope, engineering is awesome. There are SO many cool things going on in engineering these days:
- Augmented reality research
- 3D printing (of, say, a bicycle?)
- Medical research and devices
- Mobile devices
- Flying robots
- Breakthrough engineering and architecture designs
- Clean water research and solutions
- Many, many more…
So, what is an engineer? A great definition from Dr. Mary Wells of the University of Waterloo:
“Engineers are people who use science to design and invent new technologies to help make the world a better place.”
Yup. Sounds good to me. What do you think?