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Do we need to sugarcoat engineering?

By Hui-Hui Wang

Two years ago, I taught a science and engineering after-school program to a group of fifth and sixth grade girls. I asked them what engineering is. No surprise, their answers were all associated with fixing things and building a building. This echoes some research findings that these are common misconceptions about engineering. After completing the program, the girls could identify what engineering is. But they still did not want to pursue engineering as a career choice. What went wrong?

I think it is the way that we present engineering to them. Next Generation Science Standards 2013 defines engineering in a very broad sense to mean "any engagement in a systematic practice of design to achieve solutions to a particular human problem." In short, the essence of engineering is a goal-directed problem-solving activity to find the best solution for a human-made problem. This is really important work that will benefit large numbers of people. Now, how can we convey that to the youth?

National Academic Engineering did an experiment to find out. They sent out some text messages to test people's reactions to statements about engineering.
The messages that got the most positive reactions from the public were:
  • engineering makes a world of difference
  • engineers are creative problem-solvers
  • engineering helps shape the future
  • engineering is essential to our health, happiness and safety
The messages that really turned people off included:
  • engineering use math and science to solve problems
  • engineering is the hardest major and job
So the statements about changing the world made engineering attractive to people, and the ones about the learning challenges involved in becoming one turned people off. I guess that makes sense, but I started to wonder if these sugarcoated messages downplay the importance of science and mathematics?
We do not want to scare our audiences off by saying "you have to be good at science and mathematics in order to be an engineering major." But the truth is, you do. If a student doesn't know that, and doesn't prepare to college by studying math and science, then in reality, she will very likely end up changing her major and career choice from engineering to something else. What do you think? Do we need to sugarcoat engineering to get kids interested?

-- Hui-Hui Wang, former assistant professor and Extension educator, STEM education

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  1. Very thought provoking, Hui Hui! I think there is an important distinction between "marketing" engineering to get young people to even think about what it is and what it can do, and adults being clear with young people about what it takes to pursue a career in this field. The first gets people interested or curious--once they are curious they will want to know more! I also think it is critical we take the "growth mindset" view (Carol Dweck's work) vs. the "fixed mindset"--encouraging young people that they CAN learn and do hard math and science coursework--that we all can increase our intelligence, learn from mistakes, and move to mastery. I think it's important we don't use the language of "you have to be good at something" to pursue an engineering career. I think it's critical we stress things like hard work, perseverance, and supports that can assist a young person in pursuit of their career aspirations!
    the idea that engineers help shape or improve the world is a great message, especially for middle school age youth, who at that age have a strong interest in "saving the world" or making a contribution!

  2. Thank you Anne.
    I agree with you. Yet, I do think besides engage youth, we also need to prepare youth to get into engineering field, which we also emphasize the importance of science and math. :)

  3. Hui Hui,
    I think you and Anne expose an interesting dichotomy in our society.
    In the 4-H judging world where we compare against a standard with the Danish judging system, it feels like we are often having to coddle the overprotective parents by giving our youth a blue ribbon when it is not justified (or face the parents wrath and worry about a public relations nightmare) - their children must be recognized as perfect all the time.
    In our school systems I hear teachers complaining about having to "teach to the standards" or "teach to the tests". And I've worked with students who have said "I can't do science" and "I'm no good at science" - yet these students can explain DNA fingerprinting and gel electrophoresis (although they might not use those terms).
    So, to address Hui Hui's question "Do we need to sugarcoat engineering to get kids interested?" - I don't think we need to sugarcoat it, but I think we need to let them TRY the applied math and science in engineering and let them decide for themselves whether they are good at (or be motivated to improve in) math and science, rather than letting schools or parents (or other external forces) dictate their talents. And for some youth, that might be appealing to their creative (and change the world) side before appealing to their analytical side.

  4. Thank you Margo. I enjoy your comment. We provide an environment and let them try and feel it.