The invisible engineer and the telecom fairy

The invisible engineer and the telecom fairy

While running kids to school this morning, I heard a commercial talking about new cell phone service and how it wasn’t due to magic, i.e. the Telecommunications Fairy.  The commercial failed to tell us how this new service came to be: that is it was due, in part, to the work of engineers.










This is probably a step back from the story one of my EE profs told me in grad school.  He had just received his PhD in electrical engineering when a neighbor came over.  The neighbor was complaining because his furnace was on the fritz, and he was hoping my prof could help him fix it.  My prof responded that he hadn’t studied that model in school.

It used to be that engineers were perceived to be fairly close to mechanics or electricians.  During the space race, they were the people who built the space craft, although astronauts were the ‘real heroes’.  Now, it seems that most engineers are lumped in with scientists, fading into the background behind them.  I actually didn’t realize the breadth in the field until I enrolled in my master’s program – and my dad had actually started back to school in engineering when I was in high school.







I think a huge part of the problem is that nearly everyone is required to take a few science classes in high school.  The general public has this view of scientists as people men who wear lab coats and either play with funky looking chemistry sets or run around collecting frogs.  Obviously, as a computational geophysicist and a female, I probably fit nowhere into that scheme.  However, people at least have a clue that what scientists do involves some sort of math-related stuff that involves making things or studying things.

Virtually no one ever has a class on engineering in high school.  In fact, I’m not completely sure where people get the idea to major in the field unless someone in their family suggests it or they watched a lot of Star Trek and wanted to be like Scotty.  (From what I understand, both scenarios are actually pretty common.)








And people in the public, even our families, often have no clue what it is we do: their notions of engineers are even more vague than their notions of scientists.  A friend of mine who earned his PhD in engineering as well as a MS in math talked about how his engineering pursuits were being talked down by his classmates and professors in the math department.  One day when he was presenting a paper, one of the students made a snide comment, so he took the opportunity to educate them that all of their cell phones and PDAs and even the computers they were using to do research were the works of engineers.

I am hopeful because we have a president who actually seems to understand the difference between the two.  Obama has done a lot to promote both scientific endeavor and discussed how engineers produce advanced technologies.  I hope people are paying attention and learning how important both engineering and science are to our economy and our nation in general.  However, I imagine a big part of the message is lost because of the politicization of the issue.

For now, however, the best we can do is share things like EngineerBlogs, build engineering communities, and spread the word about engineering organizations and events (such as National Engineers Week).  Hopefully these communities can do some PR on behalf of engineers and continue to show the public the importance of engineering.

What are your thoughts?  Do you think that engineering has disappeared from public perception?  Why or why not?


Computational geophysicist, eh? So you like measure rocks or what? 🙂

I got into electrical engineering because I wanted to design cell phones. I had no clue what engineering was prior to that. I’ve given up the cell-phone endeavor but am glad it led me where it did.

No, I study rocks as projectiles…like Newtonian behavior. Especially when people are annoying me. 😉

I had a completely different idea about what I’d be doing when I started my MS. Now I’ve gotten involved in 3-4 different areas of research that I hadn’t anticipated at all. I’ve learned a lot of cool things, so I guess that points out how flexibility is a good thing.

And people in the public, even our families, often have no clue what it is we do

I can certainly relate to that. I tell my family I design chips and they ask me what that means. I tell them they’re those little black squares on a circuit board. Silence…they’re not impressed. Then they ask me to fix their computers and when I said I can’t help, they wonder just what kind of engineer am I.

You should tell them you design potato chips. 🙂

Family are sometimes the worst offenders. For my MS, I designed antennas to use RFID on livestock. My mother thought she’d be funny and got me a shirt that said something like, “For my masters, I designed cow jewelry.” I haven’t thrown it away, but I won’t wear it, either.

This article hits home for me. I’ve lost count as to the number of times I have had some variant of this conversation:

Person: What kind of engineering are you studying?
Me: Electrical Engineering
Person: Oh so you’re like an electrician.
Me: Not in the slightest, I am in no way qualified to wire a house.
Person: Huh, so computers then? Do you know why my computer won’t connect to the Internet?
Me: Probably not, though I could potentially figure it out sooner than wire a house. I’m an analog circuit designer. I design the chips that go inside your computer to drive the display, or power everything.
Person (now with blank look on their face): Sure, yeah, okay. So anyways…
Me (sighing): You know what, let’s just say computers.

After a few dozen repeats of this throughout the years I really don’t have the patience or desire to explain in depth what I really do anymore. Especially since most people don’t seem to care all that much anyway.

In MN, a BSEE waives the experience requirement for obtaining a Masters Electrician license. While it would not be prudent to hold oneself out to the public as an electrical contractor, such does serve to mitigate many no mans land conflicts between fed, state, and local regs. By the same token, having heard of the massive curricula shifts, it no longer seems wise, at least from a public safety point of view.

I think in mechanical it’s easier for my friends and family to understand what I do, but they still don’t understand what I really do. As in they’re familiar with the product that I help design but when they ask me what I actually do on a regular basis they don’t see how that is engineering or don’t see why I don’t understand every single element of the product I contribute to.

I spent a whole afternoon telling my dad what I do (industrial control) and later overheard him explaining to someone I design jacuzzis. I don’t even want to know what he told people when I was working in the semiconductor industry.

I don’t have an elitist complex for being an engineer, but it does get on my nerves sometimes when people say things like “screw wasting money on a EE degree, I installed my new car CD player myself!”, like all I learned in school was how to twist color wires together.

The “I didn’t study that model college” line is assume. I’ll have to remember that in the future.

Thanks so much for the laughs!!
“…hadn’t studied that model in school…they wonder just what kind of engineer am I…design jacuzzis…” Too funny!

You’re my kind of people! Glad to know you are out there.

As an ECE and academic, explaining “what I do all day” to a family member becomes strained. The best I’ve found is to liken building/running a research lab to owning a small business. Explaining my husband’s work as an ME/EE design engineer is also cumbersome, but telling people he has patents often helps. The business angle and patent reference usually shuts them up in a good way, not a blank-stare sort of way, such that they respect what you do even if they can only explain it as computers. Did anyone see the “That 70s Show” episode where Kelso cannot understand his dad’s explanation of his specialized statistician career, so Kelso decides to say he is a farmer that plucks vegetables from trees every morning? Enjoy:

Cherish, I keep hearing about the idea of antennas to use RFID on livestock (I won’t use the non-technical term). I would love to know how far the work has progressed.

I am by NO means an engineer; however I have a great understanding of why engineers are so vital to our society. Being a recruiter for engineers within the Telecom arena, I have the honor of speaking with engineers on various levels and I believe that there is not enough promotion or insight on what it takes to become an engineer and how one would go about getting there. Many engineers that I have spoken to have been in their field prior to the phenomenon of the cell phone and have grown since the transformation of the telecommunications industry, I have not met many that were recent college graduates.
The job market is extremely competitive and it is becoming increasingly difficult to find the “perfect” candidate for engineering roles. Bringing more awareness to Engineers would beneficial.

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