Quick! Think of a well-known engineer, real or fictional, from pop culture.
I bet that took longer than expected, right?
Perhaps Scotty from Star Trek came to mind. He is admired among his fictional peers because the fate of the crew often depended on his technical prowess, but this chief engineer seldom made the promotional posters for the series.
Maybe you thought of Dilbert, the fictional comic nerd-hero who is disgruntled and unpopular in his own world. Though humorous, his frustrations with his job are not always relevant to engineering. However, he does share with real engineers the reputation of being unsocial.
Even in our modern society that relies so heavily on technology, engineers and scientists have a fairly negative social reputation. Though there are a handful of notable, socially visible scientists held in high regard in popular culture—Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Bill Nye and Carl Sagan, to name a few—I’m hard-pressed to think of any publically familiar engineers (not counting technically savvy entrepreneurs such as Elon Musk or Bill Gates).
The Wikipedia page for “engineer” is telling—there is an entire section specifically about public perception of the profession:
“…engineering has in the popular culture of some English-speaking countries been seen as a dry, uninteresting field and the domain of nerds. One challenge to public awareness of the profession is that average people lack personal dealings with engineers, even though they benefit from their work every day.”
Engineering is challenging, but not uninteresting. Most of us rely on our engineered devices, so much so that they are often the first things we reach for in the morning or watch before we sleep. If engineering is dull, why are over 2.5 million people in the United States alone (per the 2010 U.S. Census) employed as engineers?
Wikipedia identifies the problem well: people don’t often have the opportunity to meet the person who designed their phone display or aligned their camera lenses. Layers of corporate customer service often prevent consumers from providing direct feedback to an engineering team, and technical topics are mired in nuanced jargon.
However, I find that it is both refreshing and efficient to have a technical discussion in which specialized topics are broken down into basic concepts that can be understood by an interested, but less experienced person. It’s key to find the right balance of precise technical terminology and universal language for your particular audience.
I suggest that public opinion of engineers can be improved if those of us making the technology spent a few hours during the day in a classroom or discussing technical projects with non-technical peers. Optical engineers in particular should be able to relate to most people, since almost everyone interacts with light every day, whether it’s something as simple as their rearview mirror or as complex as their head-mounted display of a 3-D video that was downloaded via an optical fiber link. If you can convey complex technical topics simply and directly to anyone you meet, then you stand a better chance of being crystal clear when you interact with your professional colleagues.
This new year, consider how you can alter the negative stereotype by reaching out to a young person, a family member or a peer to educate them about your passion for engineering. Understanding technology is awesome, so make it a story that’s told over and over again. Become a better storyteller, and maybe someone in your audience will consider engineering as a career.
Brian Monacelli is an optical engineer. He also teaches photonics at Irvine Valley College, Calif., U.S.A.