From the Technical Director
"Changing the Conversation”
By Morgan J. Hurley, P.E., FSFPE | Fire Protection Engineering
During the last few years, the engineering field has been working to
change how it is perceived by people who are not engineers. The purpose
of this effort was to reverse stereotypes about the engineering
profession and better emphasize the positive contributions that
engineers have on people and society. Pre-existing stereotypes resulted
from the engineering community’s focus on the skills needed to become an
engineer as opposed to the work that engineers do.
In 2008, the National Academy of
Engineering (NAE) published a report titled, "Changing the Conversation:
Messages for Improving Public Understanding of Engineering.”1
The report was a result of 18 months of study into messaging strategies
that would be effective at improving the understanding of the
engineering profession among non-engineers. The messages published in
the report include:
Engineers make a world of difference.
Engineers are creative problem-solvers.
Engineers help shape the future.
Engineering is essential to our health, happiness and safety.
The University of Colorado in Boulder
adopted the NAE messages in the University’s outreach efforts. The
University has also changed the visual imagery that it used to show what
engineers do - moving away from abstract images of things like gears to
pictures of people working together.
Initial anecdotal data indicate that this
messaging strategy has been successful. In the fall of 2010, the
University of Colorado in Boulder reported an increase of 24% in the
number of women enrolled in engineering and an increase of 67% in the
number of minorities.
Similarly, the University of Hartford has emphasized
engineering projects and good communications skills in introductory
engineering courses.2 The result has been a 100% retention
rate for freshman engineering students - whereas a large number of
engineering students were previously lost to other fields like business,
law or medicine.
Fire protection engineering suffers from less recognition
among the general public than the broader engineering profession
receives. While many people would recognize some of the types of work
that engineers do, they would be less likely to recognize the work that
is performed by fire protection engineers.
SFPE developed a set of messages that can
be used to better explain what fire protection engineers do and the
positive impact that this work has on society. These messages, which are
similar to the NAE messages, include the following:
Fire is a big problem.
Fire protection engineers design ways to protect people from fire.
Fire protection engineers are in high demand.
A career in fire protection engineering
pays well, provides an opportunity for world travel, and gives the
opportunity to work in a variety of work environments.
Fire protection engineers bridge industries.
Fire protection engineers allow innovation.
Fire protection engineers reduce risk.
These messages and lessons learned from
the successes at the University of Colorado in Boulder and the
University of Hartford can be used to help recruit people into fire
protection engineering. First, the messages are useful when speaking
with students who are considering their future career paths. Second,
while images of fire can be more exciting than pictures of gears, visual
images should focus on people working together. If there’s anything
that fire protection engineers do in abundance, it’s work with others -
whether coworkers, other engineers, architects, clients, or enforcement
Changing the Conversation: Messages for Improving Public Understanding of Engineering, National Academies Press, Washington: 2008.
McLaughlin, M. -Conversation Starter, - PE: The Magazine for Professional Engineers, August/September 2012, pp. 24-27.
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