For example we in engineering education are rightly focused on the importance of our discipline. How does the rest of the English speaking, book publishing world perceive engineering in a historical context? It is easy to search for the word "engineer" and compare our importance to several other professions.
|Figure 1: Relative frequency of selected professions for two centuries|
|Figure 2: Relative frequency of very common words|
Going back to Figure 1, there are some interesting bumps in the frequency of the word "engineer" that don't appear in scientist. Historically these seem to correspond to major military conflicts (Civil War, WW I, WW II). The figure below highlights this by comparing "engineer" to two other militaristic words: "soldier" and "pilot". There is definitely a stronger spike for the more militaristic words, but clearly the data shows the relationship of engineers to military conflicts.
|Figure 3: Correlation of "engineer" with military conflicts|
Interestingly enough in the recent "War on Terror" period post 2000, there has not been a connection with engineers, at least in the books scanned by Google.
Is the decline of the word engineer associated with all the most common disciplines of engineering, or just a few? The figure below shows the results of a search for "_____ engineer" over the last century where the blank is the particular discipline shown.
|Figure 4: Frequency of five different disciplines of engineering|
The last meaningful search I did in NGrams was for STEM education, in particular comparing "engineering education" with "science education" over the last century. This is shown below.
|Figure 5: Comparison of two types of STEM education|
Are these just numerical coincidences, does the set of books from which this data is drawn accurately reflect public interest, knowledge, or perception? I neither have the scholarly background nor time time to delve into this issue in a truly scientific manner. However I do believe that this data qualitatively reflects trends in public perception and attention. If this is true, and that is a big "if", then engineering seems to be on a long downward slide. This data suggests the critical importance of explaining what we do, publicizing our impact, and attempting to become more visible. The National Academy of Engineering's Changing the Conversation initiative is a good first step.