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Still too boring for TV?

showoff AnnaPloszajski

Back in 2014 New Civil Engineer asked: “Why Are Civil Engineers Too Boring For TV?”

Has anything changed since then? Is it still the right question to be asking?

Three years ago engineers were concerned about their industry’s exposure, or lack thereof, on television.

It was after the 2014 winter storms caused flooding, and engineers’ response to the emergency was allotted a few panicked minutes here and there, scattered across news programs.

showoff katieCreswell maynard

showoff katieCreswell maynard

Source: Steve Cross

University College London PhD student in civil, environmental and geomatic engineering Corina Kwami tries her hand at stand-up.

It proved true the old adage – the only time engineers get anywhere near a live telecast is when something has collapsed or gone wrong.

Switch channels and you can find architect Kevin McCloud extolling ”Grand designs” or scientist Brian Cox gloriously ”Exploring the wonders of the solar system”.

The 2014 floods have now passed. But the central issue – where is mainstream engineering coverage? – remains.

Profile is increasingly important. There is an expected shortage of new engineers entering the industry and there is a low percentage of females and minorities in the civil engineering workforce. At least some of these failures is due to engineering’s image among the public.

Television can certainly help. According to the Broadcasters Audience Research Board about £7bn is spent annually by broadcasters, marketers and agencies in the UK on making and sending out content. How much of this is being spent on civil engineering? What was the last show that had you in rapturous excitement about building infrastructure?

One space for engineering on TV has been the Discovery Channel. But in recent years it has moved from “Extreme Engineering” and “Mythbusters”, to “Deadliest Catch” and “Shark Week”. In the UK, the Discovery Channel now collects between 0.02% and 0.23% of total viewing time, or an average of up to 492,000 viewers per day. In comparison, BBC1 (23.13% of total viewing time) and ITV (12%) attract up to 32 times more viewers, with between 16M and 27M daily.

Meanwhile, University of Illinois professor Bill Hammack’s humbly-named “engineerguy” You Tube channel has quietly amassed millions of viewers. More than 530,000 subscribers are hotly awaiting the arrival of his next episode. Each video explains in a few minutes the engineering marvels behind everyday consumer products. Hammack’s background is in chemical engineering, including working as a science advisor of the US Department of State. But he has been presenting engineering for decades, including about 300 public radio commentaries.

Hammack jpg

Hammack jpg

Source: YouTube

Bill Hammack explains the engineering marvel that is aluminium beverage cans.

His book on communicating engineering, Why engineers need to grow a long tail: using new media to inform the public and create the next generation of innovative engineers” is based on the idea that the media is moving from bulk audiences and mainstream interests, towards a large amount of niches.

“The essential characteristic of old media lies in this model: filter, then publish,” says Hammack. “The new media inverts this completely: one publishes and then filters.

“Failure in the ‘publish, then filter’ world is high, but the cost of failure is low. What has changed in the last 10 years – due to digital tools for video and sites for sharing with the world – is this dropping cost of failure.”

The project must reflect the complexity of engineering

Professor Bill Hammack

Not only is the nature of failure changing, but success is now also measured differently, says Hammack. “With new media, we no longer measure engagement simply by audience numbers, but by creating ‘deep use’ among those we want to reach.” Deep use could include rating, commenting, distributing, sharing and re-mixing – all of which builds the content’s own organic network.

Making engineering entertaining, while providing technical details without sacrificing its integrity, can be a tightrope walk. He says we must foster in the public the “proper notion of engineering”.

“The project must reflect the complexity of engineering, rather than the reductive approach commonly used in our engineering schools. By complexity I mean that an engineering solution reflects an interdisciplinary approach that uses both technical depth and non-technical breadth.”

When appearing in his videos, Hammack drops the “professor” tag and does not use technical props or esoteric language. “When you use ‘expert mode’, you say that science and engineering are something you cannot understand; you need my help. The gatekeeper role tends to turn off listeners. When on air I’m always called ‘Bill’; in fact, ‘professor’ is never mentioned at all.”

Steele screenshot

Steele screenshot

Gillian Steele gives a workshop to young students, including her innovative Geo-box.

Other top tips for getting laypeople interested in engineering include: aim for awareness, rather than hardcore literacy; the message should be delivered as a story; and learn the strengths of mass media as well as new media. Hammack says these new pillars of how to do outreach must be “in the DNA of every new engineer”.

“In the day and age where the line between personal and public communication has blurred, and where citizen journalism might well dominate, we need to have every engineering graduate versed in new media, and in love with the idea of reaching the public.”

One new engineer who understands this, particularly in regard to working with children, is New Civil Engineer Graduate of the Year finalist Gillian Steele. The geotechnical engineer was commended particularly for her workshops bringing geotechnics to young students. She has been using an innovative “Geo-box” to teach basic geotechnics in schools for about 18 months around south Wales where Steele is based.

Kids are using media at younger and younger ages, and it’s important to pitch it right

Graduate engineer Gillian Steele

“It’s an adaptable workshop for any age, something you can change along the lines of what they know or what interests them. It involves material readily available, like soil from the garden, gravel. The children build the model, then you can discuss how buildings and foundations interact.”

The workshop is adaptable for different ages, and eventually Steele wants to build new modules for other topics, such as bridges or water. She says it is important to recognise the different needs and interests of different aged children.

“With younger primary school children, you’re just trying to get them interested in… civil engineering – what the different roles are, and let them know it’s not just hard hats and guys on site. When they’re slightly older you can go into the maths and physics behind engineering. Then in college they’re really interested in what you do in your day to day life, and if they were to take on the role, to know what exactly would be expected of them, what they would be doing.”

“Kids are using media at younger and younger ages, and it’s important to pitch it right, to that age,” Steele says.

gillian steele

gillian steele

NCE Graduate Award runner up Gillian Steele.

She quotes best practice examples of using new media as short videos and interactives – the song/video written and performed by 23 year old civil engineer Joanna Anderson for last year’s “Tomorrow’s Engineers Week” which went viral late last year. Virtual-reality models of the London Underground tunnels at the ICE’s One Great George Street headquarters in London were also commended. For online engagement, Steele says “rather than going into a formal description or link, make it more engaging to start,” says Steele.

It is interesting to reflect how much has changed in civil engineering’s outreach efforts, and how fast it has happened. None of the activities above were available when Steele was at school.

“I grew up in a rural part of Scotland and there wasn’t much in a way of career advice, or in practical applications I could do,” says Steele “There was an engineering module at secondary school, but even then, we didn’t have people from industry come in to speak to us, which I think would have been really valuable.”

I train them to go ‘This is what my life is really like. Here are the things I find challenging, things I find joy in

Engineering Showoff’s Dr Steve Cross

“I’m now involved with the ICE’s graduate and student groups, and we’re constantly trying to get people on to construction sites. Obviously there are health and safety issues when you have got young kids, but to see a local construction site, where it really relates to them, is vital.”

Something not quite as educational as a workshop, or accessible as YouTube, but which is undeniably effective, is stand-up comedy.

The Engineering Showoff, sponsored by the Royal Academy of Engineering, provides training for engineers wishing to perform a short stand-up comedy routine. Comedian and former scientist Steve Cross facilitates the program which has a run of five dates across London and Manchester. For £6 (ticket proceeds going to Engineers Without Borders) you can watch a handful of engineers attempting to be funny.

“I train them to go ‘This is what my life is really like. Here are the things I find challenging, things I find joy in’,” says Cross.

showoff EmmaKent

Showoff Emma Kent

Source: Steve Cross

Structural and civil engineer Emma Kent

Having already hosted scores of Science Showoffs, training hundreds of scientists in the art of making people laugh, Cross says engineers have great stories to tell.

“Engineers are open about talking about their actual working lives. Whereas scientists always get hung up on facts, they need to get the science across. I don’t think engineers get that hammered into them.”

New Civil Engineer attended the London show in a King’s Cross pub basement. There were room-wide belly laughs, along with occasional awkwardness. It is a packed house and many in the crowd are there because of the reputation of the event, recommendations of friends. And it is clear many are co-workers or performers’ family.

As MC, Cross fires up the audience, making digs at scientists and architects that go down particularly well.

showoff PritiParikh

showoff PritiParikh

Source: Steve Cross

UCL Department of Civil, Environmental and Geomatic Engineeering senior lecturer Priti Parikh.

“If you jumped out of a plane the last thing you would want is a parachute designed by a scientist,” Cross jokes. “Because you’d pull the cord and the first thing to pop out would be a sheet with all the assumptions they’d made while modelling it. But the engineers would go, ‘how big do you think the parachute needs to be?’, and somebody would say ‘200 square feet’, and they say, ‘alright we’ll double it just to be on the safe side’. You jump out the plane, you’re fine. But it might take a week to get to the ground because there’s so much redundancy built into the system.”

Participants get about 10 minutes on stage. Most are not regular performers and clearly find it exhilarating. Civil engineer Philippa Jefferis described the experience of the London show as “a revelation”.

“That’s when it happened, something I’ve always wanted to get from a science, technology and maths (STEM) event – an audible gasp of enlightenment,” says Jefferis. “It rather threw me, as it was not a reaction I was expecting, but someone in the audience had just learnt why it’s called civil engineering, and was really excited to have done so.”

Hammack adds that civil engineers are among the most enthusiastic would-be comedians in the engineering world. “Because they’ve heard of ‘people’,” laughs Cross. “Whereas other branches of engineering, they’ve not heard of ‘people’ before.”

One surprise is the performers are almost entirely women. Cross has done this on purpose. He says when researching the show he was “shocked” at the statistics of females in engineering – just 9% of total engineers in the UK.

“Women are thrown out of the system at every stage the whole way through. They’re alienated at every level, from the start when they’re asked ‘are you sure you want to be an engineer?’ to the very top. Science has the same problem, but the amount of women in biology balances things out a bit.”

Cross has done Showoffs with a whole range of professions, including architects and scientists, and says civils are among the best to work with. “If you work with psychologists they keep wanting to stop you and ask ‘why?’ While the barristers turn up having not even thought about it, so they’ll just try and riff eight minutes. Engineers will get it done early. They send me scripts a few days after training and ask for suggestions. They’ve practised in front of lots of different people. So they’re pretty ideal.”

It seems what often holds back a comedy routine – and engineering communication more generally – is, according to Cross, in-jokes among peers, using terminology only workmates would understand. “But once you say ‘This is stand-up comedy’ it gives you a licence to be a bit more playful… it’s not labelled as academic discourse. Scientists and engineers are constantly attacking popular presentations of their own professions for being not sufficiently accurate or sufficiently professional. If you want to allow people in, you have to soften the message, let things be not-perfect, have jokes that are relevant to people outside.”


Readers' comments (1)

  • "Engineers are open about talking about their lives. Whereas scientists always get hung up on facts" on page 78 of the NCE. It's in fact taken out of context from this article, and hardly complementary to our new AMICE scientists.

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