If we want to excite the next generation about engineering we need to begin by ditching the jargon, writes Stacey Marple, a project manager at Monitor Coatings.
“What’s an engineer?” “Why are you an engineer?” “Engineering has a bad reputation for children. We grow up learning that we should aspire to be scientists, teachers, doctors etc. We want to earn good money and in my mindset that is the opposite to being an engineer? What made you come into this industry?”
These are all questions I was asked by students during I’m an Engineer, get me out of here, an online Science Technology Engineering Maths (STEM) engagement project that connects school students and engineers.
Answering those questions and explaining your job to your engineering peers is easy, explaining it to school students is completely different. In June 2017, I applied for I’m an Engineer. I was selected for the Smart Materials zone, aiming to engage with the students and expose them to engineering.
The engagement is not face-to-face but online via a chat room and ask forum. Students would log into the chat room for rapid-fire 30-minute sessions, asking any questions they had.
My language was too formal and my sentences too long. I was boring, talk about being an Engineering stereotype!
Problem 1: How do you communicate effectively when you cannot see the students? In 1971, Albert Mehrabian published a book Silent Messages, in which he discussed his research on non-verbal communication. My conclusion from this research was that the majority of communication is non-verbal. My approach to effective communication online was trial and error! Initially, I simply introduced myself and then talked about my work. It appeared from the student’s responses that the students did not want to talk about engineering, my language was too formal and my sentences too long. I was boring, talk about being an Engineering stereotype! I needed to engage them in talking to me as a person first.
To engage the students, we chatted about their interests and things I liked and they started to engage. Yes, pizza and crisp choices are important! Pepperoni is my favourite pizza, by the way. The students gained more confidence and built a rapport with me.
Once a rapport was established we could start talking about engineering. Problem 2: I had no idea how to explain my job without jargon, acronyms and lengthy explanations. None of which is helpful to inspiring students into engineering.
How could I explain engineering and spark an interest in the students? After a few false starts and having completely confused the students, I found the best way of getting my message across was to use simplified language, no jargon or acronyms but everyday words.
A great example of this is this description of the Saturn V rocket, which dispenses with jargon and acronyms and uses only the 1000 most frequently used English words. The rocket is called the “Up Goer Five,” and the command module the “People Box”.
Be careful here though, simpler words do not mean dumbing down the concept. A quote attributed to Einstein says “Make everything as simple as possible…but no simpler!”
Additionally, I chose to relate engineering concepts to things the students had already studied and used stories/examples.
All of that was great and the students were starting to understand what engineers do and that they are creative problem solvers.
But they still had a recurring question, “why does it matter to me?” The explanations meant nothing without context, relevance or simply put, the benefits to them.
I had to point out the numerous ways engineers have shaped the world and the big challenges they are working on like 3D-printed artificial limbs; mobile phones; connecting the world and renewable energy – so they can continue to live on a sustainable earth.
I learnt a lot during I’m an Engineer about how to better communicate my role as an engineer to get people interested in what we do.
So remember next time you’re doing a STEM project; rapport – engage your audience, simple words – explain without jargon, stories/examples – relate the concept and relevance- make it matter to them.
I believe that engagement of the next generation is vitally important, we need to inspire more students to choose a career in engineering, so the industry and world have the talent they need for the future.
Stacey Marple is a project manager at Monitor Coatings in Newcastle. She works on projects to create and apply surface coatings, and she is currently managing a project on the Royal Navy Queen Elizabeth Air Carriers.
Stacey won the Smart Materials Zone of I’m an Engineer, Get me out of here in June 2017. She spent her prize money on an Ada Lovelace themed interactive engineering day where primary school pupils were introduced to coding and built a digital watch from a BBC Microbit.
I’m an Engineer is an online STEM engagement project that connects school students and engineers.