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Messages For Improving Public Understanding Of Engineering

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2008 Annual Conference & Exposition


Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

Publication Date

June 22, 2008

Start Date

June 22, 2008

End Date

June 25, 2008



Conference Session

Public Engineering of Engineering, K12 Standards, and Overview

Tagged Division

K-12 & Pre-College Engineering

Page Count


Page Numbers

13.890.1 - 13.890.14



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Paper Authors

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Don Giddens Georgia Institute of Technology

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Greg Pearson National Academy of Engineering

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NOTE: The first page of text has been automatically extracted and included below in lieu of an abstract

Messages for Improving Public Understanding of Engineering


Every year, hundreds of millions of dollars are spent in the United States to improve the public understanding of engineering. Despite these efforts, educational research shows that K–12 teachers and students generally have a poor understanding of what engineers do. Polling data show that the public believes engineers are not as engaged as scientists with societal and community concerns or as likely to play a role in saving lives. At the same time, policy makers and others are concerned about the state of STEM education in the United States, low enrollments of women and certain minorities in engineering schools, threats to U.S. competitiveness in the global economy, and the degree of technological literacy of Americans. This paper reports on research to develop and test messages that communicate a more accurate and positive image of engineering to the public. The results suggest that public understanding of engineering could be improved if engineers recast the way they presents themselves in outreach efforts and the engineering community uses the tested messages in a systematic way. Enhanced public understanding of engineering may be an important tool for addressing economic, education, and literacy concerns in the United States.


Considerable efforts have been undertaken in the United States to improve the public understanding of engineering (PUE). A survey by the National Academy of Engineering (NAE) in 2002 of 177 organizations involved in PUE activities revealed that they spend an estimated $400 million annually.1 However, the actual national investment can be assumed to be much higher, because the survey is believed to have reached only a fraction of the institutions that have PUE initiatives.

Despite these efforts, the impact of engineering on our daily lives, the nature of what engineers do, and the opportunities available through an engineering education are still largely unknown to most Americans. Educational researchers have found that K–12 teachers and students generally have a poor understanding of what engineers do.2 3 4 Polling data comparing scientists and engineers show that the public sees engineers as being more responsible for creating economic growth and preserving national security than scientists, as well as more likely to make strong leaders. However, engineers are not perceived to be as engaged with societal and community concerns or to play as great a role in saving lives.5 And when the relative prestige of all professions is tallied, engineering falls in the middle of the pack, well below medicine, nursing, science, and teaching.6

Although engineers, engineering educators, and the organizations that represent them want people to have more accurate and positive impressions of them, there are more important reasons for improving the public understanding of engineering. Some

Giddens, D., & Pearson, G. (2008, June), Messages For Improving Public Understanding Of Engineering Paper presented at 2008 Annual Conference & Exposition, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. 10.18260/1-2--3565

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