Are We Really the Rodney ‘No Respect’ Dangerfield of Professions?

November 22, 2011

Reading the obituaries recently viagra 100mg in The New York Times, I had to conclude ai??i?? no engineers died today!

I could have seen that literally as a good thing ai??i?? no engineers died ai??i?? but though we think we are immortal, engineers do die. It could also be seen as ai???no important engineers died today,ai??? but looking back through a weekai??i??s editions of the Times, no deaths were noted for engineers of any caliber. And I happen to know at least one prominent New York City engineer who died recently.

So who was considered worthy of an obituary this week? A radio sound effects man, a big band singer, a nurse, a writer, a surgeon, two baseball players, an illustrator, a clothes designer, a costume designer, a corporate president, a TV personality, a shoe designer, a restaurant owner, a country song writer, a producer, and a physicist. There were quite a number of people from all walks of life, it seemed, but no engineers.

Could it be no one notices engineers in life or death, even though the infrastructure that makes life work for all the other people whose deaths were recorded by the Times was planned, designed, built, maintained, and rehabilitated by engineers?

On my wall I have a poster from ACEC that says, “You can’t Ai??ai??i?? Ai??drive to work, cook that pot roast, bake that cake, shower after jogging, watch 60 minutes, toast the bread, brew the coffee, call your mother, be cool in summer, wash your sweat suit, dine out, play computer games, medicate your colds, build your new house, listen to “ol’ blue eyes,” ride your bike, video that wedding, vacuum that rug, recycle your garbage, play baseball at night, be warm in the winter, fly to Hawaii, check the time, flush the toilet, buy a fresh tomato in winter, fill that cavity, use the cash machine, mail those letters ai??i?? Ai??without an

Engineers, though labeled trustworthy by the public, get virtually no respect or recognition for what we do. Itai??i??s probably our fault. We are by our training a modest group, we don’t look for glory, and it sure doesn’t seek us out.

This may be why infrastructure is taken for granted. We don’t publicize it, but it works and not only improves our way of life but is the basis for our way of life. Since we don’t publicize the importance of infrastructure, it is for the most part ignored; it falls behind other areas whose groups are more vocal in advocating for dollars. However, it is getting to the point that the American public can’t ignore its condition much longer as we have not invested adequately in our infrastructure for decades.

Several recent economic studies, including ASCEai??i??s own, show that just investing at our present levels will seriously affect Americansai??i?? way of life in the next two decades, with a decrease in our standard of living, a hit to our GDP, continued job losses, and additional costs to businesses.

Try as we might, how will we get the public to recognize the importance of engineers and infrastructure in their daily lives? We can’t even get The New York Times to notice that an engineer died.

I welcome your reactions and suggestions in the comments below.

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  • Charles I. McGinnis, PE

    I fear that ASCE’s increasing commitment to political activism is detracting from our image as “professionals”. We have not done a good job in separating our use of infrastructure report cards intended as a professional service from the less appealing quest for expenditure of public funds that directly benefit us. The whiff of ethically questionable work to benefit civil engineers economically detracts, I think, both from our image as professionals and any efforts we might undertake through public relations to present ourselves as public benefactors rather than as simple merchants bidding for a piece of the public purse.

    ASCE’s efforts to sponsor technical advancement come at a very high price. Scant little is offered by ASCE without a substantial price. As a retiree without a corporate angel, most technical advancement offerings are out of reach economically. Political activism and technical offerings only to those who can afford very high prices are developments occurring within ASCE during my working lifetime. ASCE has become more big business and less professional association.

    Finally, I fear that environmental activism has succeeded in painting engineers as environmental rapists. Our good works are taken for granted, everything else is criticized.

    Charles I. McGinnis, PE, F.ASCE, Life Member

  • Timothy E. Pugh, Ph.D, P.E.

    Our nation, and the creation of its infrastructure is long past post-industrial in its development. Those of us who work in the infrastructure are popularly perceived as quaint relics living in the past that are either too timid or too feeble-minded to move into the 21st century. Couple that with the incredible volume of legislation, regulation and codes by which we must abide that has all but eliminated independent judgement and creative thought from our profession and it is no wonder that the Professional Engineer is perceived to be little more than an over-educated technocrat.

    My graduate school experience at the University of Colorado was instructive in this matter. The vast majority of my counterparts were from the industrial developing nations in Asia and South America. They came from the wealthier families, were highly educated and very motivated. Their home countries needed the best and brightest to create their infrastructure and held those who could do so in high regard. That is not the case in this country where engineering is considered more of a middle class profession and not on par with finance, law or medicine. As well intentioned may be push to attract women and minorities into engineering, there is the unspoken message that they must “start at the bottom” as did their white male counterparts who have now moved on to more prestigious professions.

    Failure of the ASCE leadership to aggresively fight for the critically needed work in our infrastructure is indicative of a profession full of self-doubt. We know our infrastructure is in immediate need of repairs, we have the ethical responsibility to protect the public safety, so why on earth do we passively stand aside and hope for favorable legislation? Why are we not, as professionals, confronting those in power and demanding action?

    The fault dear colleagues lies not in the stars, but in ourselves.

  • Robert B. Johson, f.ASCE

    Let me direct you to the article

    Improving Public Understanding of Engineering

    By Pender M. McCarter

    Can the United States continue to lead the world in innovation, asks the National Academy of Engineering (NAE). NAE suggests the answer may depend on how well the public understands engineering. NAE also raises a related concern of how to encourage youngsters, especially females and under-represented minorities, to consider engineering as a career option.

  • Over the years, I have watched various NASCAR and Indy Car races. I have wondered if any of the Engineering Societies have ever thought about sponsoring a car. The thought was spurred by a wish should I ever win big in the lottery – Sponsor a car and then get a couple of societies to allow the racing team to use their logos on the car.

    What a way to show that engineers are here. Can you imagine the publicity of seeing the ASCE logo on the hood of the car that is leading a major televised race? It would be a thrill (not to mention the advertising) to hear the driver in the winner’s circle say “The ASCE car was running great …”

    • Novel idea. I am not too supportive of such a big expense to sponsor a car though but then maybe convincing a TV broadcast to mention the engineering and facilities could be an effort. I do recall hearing stories on TV broadcasts from time to time about track resurfacing, etc. (especially when there are problems as in potholes at Daytona in the past). The Metropolitan Indianapolis Branch, Indiana Section, ASCE generally has a meeting during May that is held out at the track, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The featured speakers are typically engineers involved with resurfacing the track, developing the track for F1 races, reconstruction of barriers for NASCAR since those cars are so much heavier than INDY cars.

      Other engineering fields than civil have more connection with auto racing. IUPUI (Purdue regional campus in Indianapolis) has a degree in motor sports engineering/engineer technology as does U of North Carolina Charlotte and even Old Dominion at another location in Martinsville, VA.

      Purdue has done a bit of car sponsorship over the years, ref.

      Ryan Newman is a Purdue grad. with an engineering degree:

      Maybe the next time any race track is resurfaced, those involved can specify an inlay or architectural feature for the ASCE logo!

      • The idea for ASCE to sponsor a race car is an interesting idea. However, this would only reach a certain audience and demographic- race car fans. What is needed, is a more broad and public reaching initiative to publicize the Civil Engineers. Most people in the general public still do not really know what civil engineering means and therefore, what civil engineers do. They have an idea, but they don’t really know. I know this from experience- from talking with family, friends, and folks I meet all over. They guess at the idea, but don’t get it right most of the times.

        What may be more effective and lasting- is a marketing campaign by ASCE to place major ads in major newspapers, publications, and radio broadcasts- such as Wall Street Journal, NY Times, USA Today, Time and Newsweek, National Public Radio, CNN, etc- with a campaign such as “Let’s Invest in our America’s Infrastructure” and “Thank a Civil Engineer Today for Our Roads and Bridges”, etc. Individuals, groups, and the general public will begin to learn more about the issues in civil engineering and what civil engineers do. From that point, the public will begin to understand how important civil engineering is and how important civil engineers are.

        Sure, this will cost some dollars to do and we have to ask the question: Is this worth it? I for one believe this is worth it 110%. And I know there are others out there that feel the same.

  • Joseph Danatzko EIT

    I am a younger engineer and this topic is one I have often discussed over the years with peers both inside and out of the engineering field ( and across several disciplines). I think several points made in the original post are very valid as well as those mentioned in most the responses.

    I’ll equate the issue I see as a younger engineer with an issue several experienced engineers have presented to me over the years. One of the biggest gripes I have ever heard from older engineers working with younger ones is the new generations use of and reliance on computer aided analysis. That there is the belief that almost anything we work on can be put into STAAD pro, SAP, GTStrudel, etc. and the solution will just pop out. The older engineers I have worked with have always mentioned how many younger engineers know these programs but that they serve as a “black box” in the design process.

    My experience with other professionals is that engineers, civil engineers in general, are that “necessary evil” in city/town/construction, as mentioned above, and that our profession and contribution to the projects and society are that same “black box” concept. As with our design, lawyers/politicians/etc. know that we must be included in the project for it to go forward at a steady pace but have no idea exactly how the answer comes about. They just hope and assume that what we provide (our final design or drawings) is sound, the best solution and doesn’t have exorbitant costs. But along with this, similar to a younger engineer using design program, they don’t “care”. The solution is given to them by a professional whom they believe to be knowledgeable in their own field and thus, they don’t question or include us in anything more than that.

    In the times that I have sat down and spoken with other professions and spent time explaining what it is that an engineer actually does, they are lost about half-way through. Again, we are a “black box” that they don’t want to know how it works. Add this to the fact that our major design contributions and analysis (a complex pile cap solution, or long cantilever span, etc.) are never seen or hidden by architectural features. Our contribution to the project is the ensure we build something that functions as efficiently as possible while still being safe to the general public and those working within or on it. We are meant to “not get respect” as what we do can’t be seen and our best designs don’t have a failure or issue.

    I personally believe in the old adage, “you are what you eat.” As engineers we take what we are given (lower pay, less respect, etc.) because that is what we have always gotten. Our worth comes from our own industry and our peers and the knowledge that we are doing what we know/believe to be right and safe in design. But, my experience has been, that we just take it. I know several young engineers who are very creative and outgoing and take their jobs and contributions seriously. Those who do dress appropriately for a professional (expect when in the field or on site) and command the respect of other professionals as well. I think, as mentioned above, that this is the key to gaining respect. In life and in work, I maintain a stance of respecting everyone I encounter until they give me a reason not to. Maybe if we all bring that to our daily interactions with other professionals, to tell the lawyer or the politician what we feel are the issues in a project and to speak up more often and present our opinions, we may take back some of the respect that has been lost. A belief in the knowledge that our society and world need us to function and that we need them as well.

  • Wayne Pandorf, PE

    I quit dwelling on this years ago. Essentially, we (civil engineers) are technical/scientific social workers and how many social workers get praise for what they do. I have found that my fulfillment comes not from my engineering work product but being involved with the community in non-engineering ways. Those are the things that people remember and find value in. So it’s best to quit whining about our lack of “respect” for what we do as engineers and focus more on being a driving force in your local communities, especially for “non-engineering” related issues, like locally grown foods, alternative energy, etc. Just my 2 cents.

  • Very interesting topic and comments from colleagues. I think the current infrastructure challenges facing our country today provides the profession with a wonderful opportunity to build awareness of the importance of civil engineers and to merchandise the value provided by our profession. I hope we ride the growing momentum and awareness to illustrate to the public the business impact this industry has on our society and I challenge us to take the lead in changing the certain perceptions that exist out there. The growing discussion and implementation of private investment into infrastructure provides the industry the opportunity to let the free market dictate the value associated with infrastructure and will help highlight the unique set of skills our fellow civil engineers should be compensated for.

  • I am happy to see that the new President, Mr. Herrmann made this comment and raised this topic in his column. As someone that is not an engineer- my observation of most professional engineers that I have interacted with, worked with, and have met- most do not realize how important the marketing and public relations/perception aspects are on what professional engineers do. The P.E.s I have come to know- many of them have lots of success stories to share and tell about- however, seem reluctant and modest to share that great information or really make it known on what they do.

    I think most professional engineers are so focused on what they need to do to get their projects in order and what they need to do on daily basis- they most often overlook one simple thing: being a vocal voice and allowing others to see and know what they do. Public perception may be many professional engineers seem to not allow their personalities to be shown- thus, perhaps contributing to the perception- dare I say: most engineers are ‘not memorable’? In addition to my earlier statement, my experience in working and interacting with engineers are only positive and memorable. They have memorable and fantastic personalities, real quirks attributed to each individual, and have a true passion for what they do. Somewhere along the way, this public perception and the realities of how engineers can be and are, have to meet.

    ASCE is making a real effort and strides to educate the public on what Civil Engineers do and what civil engineering is- however, more can be done and it has to start with each ASCE member- the civil engineers, the students, the practitioners, the teachers, researchers, and everyone else that is involved in engineering. Each ASCE member should take it upon themselves to educate others- the circles of family and friends on what civil engineering is and what civil engineers do. Most importantly, stress the importance of what civil engineers do for our world. Eventually, the public and people will learn, know, and truly appreciate what civil engineers do for the communities we live in.

  • M Islam, Ph.D., G.E, PMP

    Here are a few things the civil engineers can do to improve our profession:

    (1) The most important and immediate step that can be taken to better the profession is for the elders in the profession to value and welcome the new comers by paying them more. (2) Stop selling your services for cheap. Yes, you need to be paid and pay more to get the respect. Just wishing will not do it. Too many are willing to serve at dirt cheap fee, not a recipe for respect.
    (2) Stop fighting among public and private sector civil engineers. Compete to improve quality not to lower the fee or pay.
    (3) Learn, learn some more to be confident and feel to be smart and behave as such in dressing and presentation, and keep learning.
    (4) Stop winning, thinking and acting as inferiors to others professions, and, as well as fearing the lawyers and news reporters.
    (5) Improve the quality of educators and their teaching. Expand to include some social, political, economic, marketing, management and leadership subjects. Most importantly teach to stimulate intellectual and fundamental thinking. Too many universities students of civil engineering are taught to think and behave like a technician
    (6) Celebrate engineers and their accomplishments while alive, and forget about any obituary news!

  • Good article, good ideas from reply posts. Two thoughts.

    Passion for engineering is lacking in our country. There is no glamour in crunching numbers and creating to scale engineering plans. There is glamour in busting the bad guy in court or saving the life of a patient on the emergency room table. There is glamour in architecture and graphic design. Add numbers and deflate! Engineering is subdued as what we do takes time, has an outcome benefitting many but in slow, out of sight out of mind way. This will change as our nation’s infrastructure crumbles, bridges collapse, water mains break and traffic accidents increase.

    There are very few extroverted engineers in my experience. We are by nature pleasers. We don’t want to rock the boat. We dress in browns, greens and blacks. We are frugal, practical and always thinking about murphy’s law. We can be boring. We don’t speak up. We don’t have our own sitcom or drama related to what we do (maybe with Parks and Rec but that’s a stretch). I would like this to change. Please do your part!

  • Moving from “not noticed” to “acclaimed” is a big leap for engineers, especially civil engineers. While that may sound harsh, the truth is that innovative people who bring new and exciting concepts to the market typically get the headlines, particularly after they die. Perhaps you remember the days of adolation that Steve Jobs received recently – probably the most innovative technical person (not even an engineer) over the past 25 years.

    For the most part, and there are notable exceptions, civil engineers follow prescriptive standards in much of their daily work. Design standards set by governing bodies are followed religiously, in many cases because of liability, but nontheless following is not innovating. SOPs for many civil engineers employed by public agencies are also embedded in daily life. While it’s understandable that most “follow the rules”, these aren’t the type of people who dream big dreams and innovate new products, services and even entire markets.

    So, if civil engineers want an obituary that gushes praise and adoration, they had better get started on learning how to innovate. It’s not impossible, but you have to buck convention now and then. Until you learn to take some heat by voicing an unpopular position, start questioning outdated practices, and be willing to support your position with unassailable facts and figures, better to stay with the sports pages so you won’t be disappointed.

    • Herbert Birthelmer, PE

      I’m 100% in agreement with your statement! It is the creativity that counts, not the mere fact of being an engineer!

  • Perhaps it’s because most projects are such a group effort, and engineers are seen as groups of people and recognized as firms. Awards are given to firms for projects, not often to a single engineer. Few know which engineer is the brains behind a project, and usually its many brains coming together. More people seem to be aware of which firm performed the design… Just a thought. Good article.

  • Civil Engineers are scrutinized every step of the way. But look at the bright side! Without this scrutiny, Civil Engineers could end up on a slippery slope and eventually be like Wall Street bankers. Using the Wall Street mode of operation, Civil Engineers would build a structure without a foundation, take out insurance on it, sell the structure to a client (claiming the foundation is based on a mathematical model too complicated for the client to understand), collect the insurance when the structure collapses, pay themselves a bonus from the proceeds, and ask the government to pay for re-building the structure using the original plans and specs.

    • Rolf – Well said!

      • Shannon Taylor (E.I.T.)

        Given what I have witnessed in the corporate environment of (structural) engineering – PEMB in particular – we are already sliding down the slippery slope. In my own experience, recent college graduates are required to use software of which the workings they do not understand, are not given any mentoring, and forced to crank out as many “designs” as fast as possible with no chance (time) for understanding or improvement. Also, the hours we are required to work go a long way to contributing to our “professional appearance”. How are we to generate a professional image when we spend countless hours stuck behind a desk and are continually criticized (negatively) by our superiors (engineers) for failing to meet irrational deadlines set by upper management (business “professionals”) and clients (in the case of PEMB, tradesmen). We have no time for self-improvement, and after a long day of psychological abuse and being physically inert, little motivation to self-improve. I have read that exercise is an excellent form for maintaining a healthy attitude/mind set, but how does one exercise with the schedules we are expected to keep and meager pay we recieve?

        My $0.02.

  • Robert B. Johson, f.ASCE

    EXCELLENT commentary! –
    Are We Really the Rodney ‘No Respect’ Dangerfield of Professions?

    I have assisited in Public Relations, Communications to and other Chicago area engineering groups for upwards of 25 years! I could give you pages upon pages of the lack of news coverage of engineers, engineering issues.

    But then could engineers be part of the blame than there fail to ‘confront’ the media on their penchant for sensational. celebrity news ?

    And how many of you have of the DRAPER PRIZE? seen news coverage of this major engineering award.

    Suggested reading:

    for some additional reading for you might want to check this webpage'sPage.asp

    The above is but a sample !

    Bob Johnson, SE, PE , f.ASCE
    For many many many years I’ve tried to get the local [Chicago] news media to cover the outreach programs of engineers to children, students.

    Seems to me the media just is not interested in coverage of positive ( Good News ) stories about the S.T.E.M. programs.

    I finally achieve this success as Water Reclamation District Commissioner Frank Avila interviewed me in a 30 minute program.

    The video aired on CAN-TV (CHICAGO) on COMCAST CABLE- Chicago Station #21 ( unfortunately this program will not air on suburban cable outlets, unless those local cable companies request the video)

    The video can be viewed at:

  • One of the little reasons we are not regarded highly, is the manner in which some of us present ourselves, that is, how we dress and our conduct. This is one area in which we engineers are, hands down, our own worst enemies.

    We complain, Rodney Dangerfield style, that “we get no respect” and earn too little relative to attorneys, bankers, stockbrokers, medical doctors, and others. Then we show up for meetings with and presentations to these individuals dressed and behaving as though we worked for them rather than with them. Our PowerPoint presentation is first rate while our personal presentation is very casual, less-than-business casual, and second rate. The professional work that we describe or provide when meeting with other professionals and the public is conscientiously and competently prepared, but is judged as being less than that because of the “we are technicians working for you” perception we create.

    “Perception is fact” and “you only get one chance to make a good first impression” are more than trite statements. Like or not, first impressions increasingly matter in our fast-paced world.

    Think also how the manner in which we present ourselves in public settings influences the way others view the engineering profession vis-à-vis other professions. Those “others” include the general public and, more importantly, bright young people trying to select a profession. Like it or not, we and our profession are continuously being judged by our dress and demeanor.

    The good news is that if any of us see a need to improve how we present ourselves, the solution lies entirely with us. We can study or be coached in how to dress well and present ourselves for more success – ours and our profession.

    If we regard our profession’s overall status as problem, the solution lies within ourselves whether it be little things, such as improving our dress and demenor, or a big things, like running for public office. Let’s not blame others for our predicament.

  • President Herrmann,

    Mr. President you are right, yes we are a modest group by training. Therein are the greatest opportunities to raise the bar for engineers. We need to change the focus of engineering education to be more professional, starting at the freshman year.

    Some of the issues in engineering education that could be improved are:

    1. Engineers are taught to be problem solvers, not problem definers, and creative thinkers.
    2. Engineers are taught to be followers, not leaders.
    3. Educators unconsciously perpetuate the myth that engineers are not good communicators and therefore no or little education is given to teach them how to communicate.
    4. Communication is a significant component of leadership and should be high on the priorities of engineering education needs.

    On your obed. list, how many followers were included? Probably none.

    I and a few good mentors have developed a plan for a Professional Engineering Masters as a way to address this education deficiency. Included in the plan is an alternate method to implement the Body Of Knowledge, second edition, (BOK-2). It builds on the BOK-2 proposed outcomes. Presently I am starting the process of contacting a few universities to implement the plan. If anyone wants a copy send me your address and I will send it to you. It is too long for a Blog Post.

    Merlin Kirschenman, PE, CPC

  • Years ago, I recall a common lament for lack of respect for engineers —- ” …. what we need is a TV show – L.A. Law for engineers …. ” Hmm, do lawyers – particularly LA lawyers who may deal with a lot of divorce cases get respect?

    Past President Galloway started several presentations with “I am an engineer … ” while raising her hand displaying the Order of the Engineer ring.

    I believe there is respect in many venues where people realize what we do – when value is added. This however is not a view that the general public has in my opinion. We do much behind the scenes/on the sidelines. I am rather content that a show like Building Big, Modern Marvels, How it is Made, even Myth Busters or Bob the Builder is not quite like E True Hollywood Stories, Jersey Shore, or Keep up with the Kardasians.

    The distinction between what is engineering, professional engineering, science, manufacturing and just plain ole creativity/ingenuity/getting it done is not clear, even to many engineers.

    ASCE –
    Civil engineers design and build the systems that bring us water and power.
    They build the infrastructure within our national parks.

    Yes design, but build? Engineers are not masons, carpenters, builders, construction workers, which are people who build.

    The distinctions between an engineer just being someone with an engineering degree, or a P.E., a technician or technologist with or without experience, or just a designer with lots of experience,

    Sanitation engineer is me because I have designed and analyzed waste water treatment plants or because I rolled the garbage can out for collection ???

    The engineer drives the train …. is it too late to come up with a new name, lets be creative!

    I would be remiss if I also did not mention that the evolution of engineering education to the higher level math that many practicing engineers regularly claim is never used coupled with all too many college graduates who can solve finite elements & diffy-eqtns but NOT jump start a car or finish concrete (or even perform a slump test) does not help either. Much of education has become too different from practice.

    “You can’t – drive to work, cook that pot roast, bake that cake, shower after jogging, watch 60 minutes, toast the bread, brew the coffee, call your mother, be cool in summer, wash your sweat suit, dine out, play computer games, medicate your colds, build your new house, listen to “ol’ blue eyes,” ride your bike, video that wedding, vacuum that rug, recycle your garbage, play baseball at night, be warm in the winter, fly to Hawaii, check the time, flush the toilet, buy a fresh tomato in winter, fill that cavity, use the cash machine, mail those letters – without ” an/a ………

    janitor, electrician, gas station attendant, … lots of people working together to have functioning systems in place all in a safe environment with functioning (somewhat) government thanks many in the military (current and past) as well as politicians current & past
    with a few exceptions

    I believe that I can check the time, if the sun is out, without anyone else although using knowledge from surveying classes, which are NOT so common to civil engineering these days.

  • Interesting metric, measuring public respect for the profession using the obit page! That said, I have struggled with this my whole career. We are often viewed as commodities by clients; lawyers make the laws, become the politicians and community leaders where, too often, our profession is considered a necessary evil. The fact is, though, that we don’t tend to be community leaders. We are under-represented in elected/political circles. And, perhaps paradoxically, don’t always make the best political leaders (think Hoover and Carter as examples).
    In my opinion, ASCE, through its infrastructure report card has increased the visibility of the profession across the country. Perhaps we can build on its generally broad acceptance to increase the visibility of the profession in this country.
    In my career, I have had brief opportunities to work in other countries. It seems that engineers in general and American engineers specifically are held in very high regard. In South America I was referred to as “Docktor” with great deference.
    Keep up the good work!

  • I believe it is the nature of the profession. Engineers are a blend of technical expertise and practical experience. People do engineering because they enjoy it. Maybe we need more advertising in the media – Go to the TV show Modern Marvels or How It’s Made and see real engineering in action.