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Saturday Night asleep at the switch

By Henry PetroskiHenry Petroski, associate professor of civil engineering at Duke University, writes frequently on technology and society. / January 27, 1982



Engineering students were portrayed on a ''Saturday Night Live'' television show as gauche white males whose sportshirt pockets were bulging with pencils, pens, and other implements of their profession. In the skit, which took the form of a fashion show, one model displayed a new plastic pocket that adhered to his bare chest so that he might carry his paraphernalia to the beach, while the other model posed with a slide rule dangling from his belt and an electronic calculator in his outstretched hand.

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Except for the now-ubiquitous calculator, which is as symbolic of modern Everyman as of the technologist, the skit more successfully dated the humorist than it satirized today's engineer. Not only the redundant slide rule but also the stereotyped engineering students are obsolete, and one must now look beyond badges and cliches to identify who is and who is not studying engineering at our universities.

There are ample new characteristics to isolate in caricature, and they can be found in the controlled-circulation magazines which portray the engineer as the advertiser sees him or her. Advertising is the most faithful and biting medium of satire, for it is always looking ahead to a market and anticipating, if not forming, the future foibles of its audience. The measure of success is not the transient needle of a laugh meter but the bottom line in an annual report.

The companies that advertise in magazines like Graduating Engineer portray the engineer as they think the engineer wants to see himself or herself. A common tableau in these advertisements is a group of three engineers studying a blueprint or watching a computer terminal. In an uncanny number of instances, one of the three engineers is a white male, one is a black male, and one is a white female. They do not have pencils stuffed in their shirts, and they are dressed in a spectrum of colors and styles ranging from tacky blue leisure suits to preppy pink Fair Isle sweaters.

Engineering is an egalitarian discipline, and its students come from first-generation American families as well as from families whose pedigree reaches back to the Revolutionary War. As the population of current engineering students is nowhere near so homogeneous or recognizable as ''Saturday Night Live'' has suggested, so engineering is not the object of campus jest or protest that it once was. At Duke, which has long been dominated by the liberal arts and sciences of its Trinity College, unexpectedly large numbers of students transferring from liberal arts into engineering have swollen class sizes and taxed facilities. Engineering is not considered the major of oddballs and warmongers but is seen as a source of solutions to technological and societal ills.

The situation is similar throughout the country. Undergraduate engineering enrollments have returned to and exceeded their peaks of the late 1960s, from which they had plummeted. The lean years of the 1970s have left their mark on engineering education, however, and engineering laboratories and faculties are in need of modernization. Much equipment is as obsolete as the slide rule, and faculties are understaffed.

The latest estimates are that there are as many as 2,000 unfilled engineering faculty positions across the country, and, in contrast with the booming undergraduate enrollments, graduate programs in engineering are struggling to maintain their standards and train in sufficient numbers future generations of engineering faculty.

Money is the most commonly given explanation for the state of affairs. A bachelor's degree in engineering often commands a higher starting salary than professors with PhD's earn after years of experience. Competition among growing new high-technology industries accelerates the demand and the starting salaries. It further exacerbates an already dire situation by luring, with money, experienced faculty away from engineering schools. The resolution of the dilemma is not in sight, and things may get a lot worse before they get better.

These conditions, long known within the profession itself, have been described and documented in a 1980 report prepared jointly by the National Science Foundation and the Department of Education. The report was written in response to President Carter's request to examine the adequacy of engineering education for the nation's long-term needs. Whether the new administration heeds the warnings remains to be seen.