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Educating young engineers.

There is a continual need for engineers in our society to build and renew our infrastructure and to serve our commercial, research, industrial and manufacturing sectors. The United States Department of Labor estimates a demand for about 1.75 million engineers in 2008, up 20 percent from the approximate 1.46 million engineers working in 2002.

While the need for engineers is apparent, fewer and fewer engineers are graduating from college-level programs. In addition, according to Betsy Willis, director of student programs and outreach in the School of Engineering at Southern Methodist University, many corporations anticipate a large portion of their engineering staffs will retire within the next five years. The statistics are alarming:

* From 1988 to 1999, the number of engineers graduating with bachelor degrees in the U.S. declined from 78,100 to 62,500, according to the Engineering Workforce Commission.

* In 2000, the number of bachelor-level engineering graduates in the U.S. remained static, while American industries recruited an additional 115,000 engineers from abroad.

* Roughly five percent of American college students earn engineering degrees compared with 25 percent of Russian graduates and 46 percent of Chinese graduates.

Students and adults in the U.S. have different perceptions of engineering, both of which reflect inadequate information and contribute towards a dearth of students pursuing the profession. High school students tend to perceive engineers as nerds who wear pocket protectors and work in cubicles (we can thank Dilbert for enforcing this perception). They generally believe an engineering program consists of five years of college with a difficult course load. Most do not view engineers as highly successful, although they do think engineers earn a comfortable salary. Many high school graduates who enter a college engineering curriculum are further discouraged by demanding entry-level classes, hard work, little interaction with professors, and teaching assistants who are difficult to understand.

Adults have a different perception. According to a survey released in conjunction with National Engineers Week, February 22-28, 2004, ( adults would be happy if their children chose engineering as a career because, in the words of the respondents, engineers "make a positive contribution to society," "earn a good salary," "do interesting work" and "belong to a prestigious profession." However, only one-third of the adults polled felt very or fairly well informed about engineers and engineering. The most common sources of information were television, cable and local news.

Given these conflicting perceptions, it is no surprise that several engineering organizations--including, among others, the American Council of Engineering Companies (ACEC), the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) and the National Society of Professional Engineers (NSPE)--have invested money in educating the public, with an emphasis on young people, on engineering and on what engineers do.

There are now several programs and tools geared toward attracting kindergarteners through 12th graders to engineering, and toward better educating and involving their parents. The goal is to make engineering fun while the child learns.

Programs include ZOOM into Engineering and Building Big for grade school kids; Future City, Science Olympiad and MathCounts competitions for middle school youth; and the West Point Bridge Design competition, Project Lead the Way, and the Junior Engineering Technical Society (JETS) for high school students.

Information on these programs and tools can be found on the ACEC website ( under Scholarships, on the ASCE website ( under Kids & Careers, and on the NSPE website ( under Student Information and Partners.

Colleges and universities, in cooperation with industry, are also investing in efforts to modify the engineering curriculum and enhance the college experience. Examples include:

* A 2001 report published by the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) titled "Engineering the Future of Civil Engineering." The report examines the engineering courses that should be taught in college, the method of teaching and learning engineering, and who should teach these courses. ASCE recommended that the 11 outcomes of engineering education required by the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology be expanded to include an additional four outcomes. These should address technical specialization and use of enhanced technology; project management, construction and asset management; business and public policy; and administration and leadership.

The report recommends that in addition to a scholarly background, professors should have practical knowledge/experience and serve as positive role models.

* The Gateway Engineering Education Coalition. Comprising several engineering colleges along the East Coast, this group is working on a vision to change the engineering education process and the business of engineering education.

The goal is not only to create an innovative curriculum, but also to improve faculty interaction and the use of emerging technologies. While the above-cited efforts are helpful in enhancing the visibility of engineering and stimulating interest in the profession, they are not enough. Engineers need to be more visible. They need to help educate the public on what engineers do, and to volunteer with programs that involve K-12 and college students.

They should also work with local colleges and universities to help keep students in the classroom and to help them find jobs when they graduate. Above all, it's important to focus on the big picture. It takes a community to raise an engineer.

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Title Annotation:Special report: engineering
Author:Hanna, Ernest R.
Publication:Real Estate Weekly
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Feb 16, 2005
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