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“Changing the Conversation”
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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 officials.

 

References:

  1. Changing the Conversation: Messages for Improving Public Understanding of Engineering, National Academies Press, Washington: 2008.
  2. McLaughlin, M. -Conversation Starter, - PE: The Magazine for Professional Engineers, August/September 2012, pp. 24-27.

Fire Protection Engineering welcomes letters to the editor. Please send correspondence to engineering@sfpe.org or by mail to Fire Protection Engineering, 7315 Wisconsin Ave., Ste. 620E, Bethesda, MD 20814.


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