Engineers move to the beat of a different drum

Engineers have always had to endure the "nerd" label, but some catchy lyrics might change that image.

By Diane Dierking, senior editor

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Slide rules. Pocket protectors. Programmable calculators. Over the years, engineers have worn these tools like badges of honor – and have been labeled as geeks.

But really, are you a geek, nerd or social misfit? I certainly don’t feel like one. How did we earn this image?

For the most part, the engineers I talked to said people think they’re geeks because they’re smart. But there are a lot of smart people who aren’t considered geeks.

“Engineers were the early adopters of exciting fashion statements such as the pocket protector and the calculator belt holster,” says one engineer. “I proudly wore my TI-58 on my belt for a short time, even before deciding to pursue engineering as a career.”

Another says, “We have earned this reputation because we get intensely interested in things that most people couldn’t care less about.”

“[Engineering] attracts personalities that are willing to spend more time in introverted pursuits compared to [those] in other disciplines,” says an engineer.

Such comments, I think, come closer to explaining our image problem. So, what will it take to alter our nerdy image?

One engineer says, “Maybe we need a makeover show like ‘Queer Eye for the Geek Guy.’” Not bad.
Hollywood can make anything cooler. Plenty of actors have played scientists and computer types, but I can’t recall a single movie about a plant engineer. Actors haven’t embraced engineering in their real lives, either: James Cromwell and Dolph Lundgren studied engineering, but neither received degrees.

The closest thing we have to a star right now is William Hung, a civil engineering student at the University of California, Berkeley, who became famous after his “American Idol” audition. Hung is enjoying a unique kind of celebrity: He has released several CDs on an independent label and has performed on various shows, including the “Ellen DeGeneres Show,” and had toured Asia. Yet he told Rolling Stone magazine that he’s not famous for the right reason, that’s he’s basically a joke. Having said that, one of his fan sites has a section titled, “Marry me, Will!” Apparently, the teenage girls love him.

So, we’re right back to square one: How do we lose our nerdy image? Maybe Eminem or Chuck D of Public Enemy can help.

No, you won’t hear Marshall Mathers’ or Carlton Douglas Ridenhour’s names (a.k.a. Eminem and Chuck D, respectively) during roll call at an engineering school come fall. But what if either of them were to sing a song touting the cool factor of engineers? Would you buy it?

Rajeev Bajaj, chief executive of SemiQuest, Fremont, Calif., independently produced and released a CD called “Geek Rhythms,” for which he wrote the lyrics. The CD contains four techno/rap songs about entropy, computers and, of course, engineers (you can read the lyrics at www.rlpkrecords.com).

Bajaj received his undergraduate chemical engineering degree from the Institute of Technology, Banaras Hindu University (IT-BHU), Varanasi, India, where it was cool to be an engineer. When he transferred to the University of Texas, Austin, to complete his graduate studies, he was a little surprised to find engineers were considered geeks.

About a year ago, Bajaj and his wife were discussing this disparity and he came up with the idea of writing a song. “I put two and two together and came up with geeks rapping.”

Bajaj then spent about two months writing the lyrics, after which, in true engineer fashion, he outsourced production of the songs to India. The performers on the CD are well-versed in Western music styles and regularly perform at colleges; the lead vocalist is also an electrical engineering student.

“Geek Rhythms” was released in October 2004. By January 2005, 500 copies had been sold. Then the media got wind of it and the number of CDs sold nearly doubled.

Before pressing another batch of CDs, Bajaj is not only looking for investors, but for a star to rap his lyrics. “I have sent an e-mail to Chuck D of Public Enemy,” he says, hoping the rapper will like the songs enough to get involved.

Maybe if we change our tune and stop calling ourselves geeks, others would follow. I think one engineer has the right idea; he says, “Engineers rock – and they’re sexy.”

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