Putting the E word into engagement

The Royal Academy of Engineering hosted a day on October 25th about Engineering (the E word) Engagement. It was a very interesting day which left me with many challenges and thoughts. Just what you want from a seminar.

The programme for the day consisted of two panel sessions in the morning, followed by an open session. After that we were treated to a series of 5 minutes briefings on past Ingenious projects and Mark Miodownik’s History of Engineering.

I’m going to focus on the first three sessions:

  • Is engineering engagement different from science engagement?
  • Where are all the engineers?
  • Open session: How do we tell what good engagement is?

Is engineering engagement different from science engagement?

There was a lot of crossover between the first two panels. Mostly, I think, because the first panel chose to answer their question by focusing on the second. The panel consisted of  Wendy Sadler, Steve Cross, Jane Magill and Richard Knight.

Key differences were highlighted as:

  • the culture of performance
  • the less leaky career pipeline of engineering
  • schools don’t do engineering, only science
  • whilst engineers had the better products to show they were not as good as scientists when “talking to muggles”
  • engineers were the people sitting at the back of the room with their arms folded muttering “why does no-one know what we do?”

Real engagement was described as what happens minutely on a project by project basis as opposed to the big budget TV shows or media stunts. Steve Cross also summed up the reasons why UCL scientists and engineers do engagement as:

  • they enjoy it
  • they feel morally obliged to do so because they are publicly funded
  • there are strong academic reasons as engagement improves their research
  • there are strong business reasons as engagement can help them get future funding

I was surprised that no-one mentioned that scientists are as likely to talk about the process of science as what they have discovered, whereas engineers are encouraged to speak about the shiny product they have produced.

But the biggest difference among the panel members was about what constitutes engagement and therefore what skills might be needed. Hence Steve’s astute (but not entirely accurate – see below) parting tweet at the top of this post.

There seemed to be some conflict about what people want from the term engineer. Many people thought engineers should have a high status and not be associated with skilled manual work such as car mechanics. However just as many wanted to broaden the scope of who we would call an engineer.

The issue of engineering in schools has been raised many times before and it certainly doesn’t make things easy when trying to reach school students about engineering. But is it really the big problem? I can’t find any evidence that they teach “engineering” as an academic subject in Germany for example.

Finally we were left with the idea that many engineers have “status anxiety”. It’s not something we felt when running I’m an Engineer, Get me out of here and not what corresponds with Steve’s experience at UCL. It was suggested that perhaps it is just that the engineering industry hasn’t spent the millions that science has on created a burgeoning science communication sector.

Where are all the engineers?

I had the pleasure of chairing the next session on “Where are all the engineers?” The four speakers were Prof. Sarah Spurgeon, Jeremy Greaves, Ben Johnson and Dr Helen Featherstone. We heard some more about the problems:

  • women still not being recognised as engineers
  • engineers not willing to take risks which are inevitable with engagement work
  • graduates are not well prepared to do engagement work
  • are we inviting engineers to the right engagement party?
  • need to reclaim “boffin” as a positive term

I was surprised to hear the word boffin used. It’s been a long time since I heard it used to compliment someone, whereas for the last decade Geek has slowly been reclaimed to positively describe someone who is passionate about their subject.

The comment about graduates not being prepared is also worth further examination. Scientists who engage with the public are (or were) often PhD students. In recent years particularly the Doctoral Training Centres have spent considerable resources on providing training for PhD students. Both science and engineering students. But if we’re expecting industry engineers to engage when are they going to get the training opportunities.

You would expect that training to be laid on by their employers. It was suggested that the ‘usual suspects’, a few large engineering firms are getting it right. They are working with a bottom-up approach to encourage engineers to engage. We were still left with the consensus that not enough firms are doing enough.

The session was cut short by a late start and lunch, but I felt we were still some distance from articulating why engineers want to engage with the public. Some of the reasons mentioned were:

  • ‘it’s fun to talk about the toys’ – engineers have pride in their products
  • ‘it’s not enough to be brilliant, you need to help sell the product’
  • speaking to school children can help recruit future engineers

What seemed to be mentioned less was that it is good for the engineers, not just the company they work for:

  • it improves communication and people skills
  • it’s enjoyable
  • it helps you understand what you’re doing

How we can tell if engagement is effective?

The open session allowed us to follow our interests. Kate Bellingham initiated a discussion around how we can tell if engagement is effective. The simple answer is whether you met your objectives or not. But what are our objectives?

My background is in marketing. £billions gets spent on TV advertising every year. Getting your advert noticed is tough. Advertisers spend a lot of effort evaluating their efforts to engage with their markets. One advertising model that I used was based around:

  • Awareness
  • Persuasion
  • Behaviour

Every ad concept was tested to see what awareness it created. Did people notice it? Did they remember it? Could they work out what it was about?

Was it persuasive? Did it tell you much? Did it make you feel positive towards the brand?

Finally we measured how many people would change their behaviour. Would they buy the product?

PR is part of public engagement

Whilst it is clear that we want our engagement to be effective it isn’t as simple as changing behaviour. We do need to create awareness about engineering, and to persuade people of its place in society. PR is part of public engagement. The one-to-many media work of PR has a role to play, as does the many-to-many nature of “real engagement” which is embedded into the process of engineering and science projects. We will be most effective if we use a variety of engagement methods.

Posted on November 2, 2012 by ModShane in News. Leave a comment

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