Growing Our Profession

16 Nov, 2005 By: Jeffrey Rowe

One of today's greatest engineering enigmas is cultivating future engineers

One of the biggest problems facing engineering in the United States today doesn't involve a calculator or graph paper. It involves attracting people to the profession in the first place and retaining them once they arrive. This isn't exactly a new problem, but it seems to have become magnified in the past decade or so.

Does engineering today hold the lofty position it enjoyed in this country in past generations? It sure doesn't seem so. The United States graduates only a fraction of the engineers of countries such as China and India, and the disparity grows every year. Figures don't lie: The U.S. graduates about 65,000 engineers each year, compared with about 325,000 in China and 350,000 in India.

Having said this, I'll also add that the numbers aren't the entire story. Quantity doesn't always equate to quality -- and then there is the issue of culture. For example, China in particular is an autocratic culture, and its engineers don't necessarily act without direction from an authority figure. In the U.S., engineering jobs typically encourage independent thinking and action. So although India and China might have an enormous supply of trained engineers who are willing to work as hard as but for less money than their U.S. counterparts, those overseas jobs also might not demand the highest levels of skill and aptitude.

Decline in Education Basics

All that aside, however, why is the number of prospective U.S. engineering students so low? I attribute a big part of it to U.S. students slipping downward in math and science.

The 2003 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) ranked U.S. high school students 24th on a list of 29 countries in math and science competence. When our high-schoolers demonstrate lower math and science literacy than students in the Slovak Republic and Hungary, we need a call to action. This continuing lackluster performance should spur educators, policymakers and yes, parents, into action to reverse this trend.

When there's no sound foundation in math and science, there is no chance for engineering. It's no secret that American business won't be able to continue to compete globally without a technically trained and skilled workforce. We also won't be able to continue to attract foreign investment that creates jobs, technical and otherwise, and boosts economic growth. Although our educational system has managed some advances in primary and secondary schools in the past several years, it's obvious that many, if not most, math and science curricula are still not connecting kids with what will almost certainly comprise this country's best, most desirable, and lucrative career opportunities for the 21st century.

What's Happening in Our High Schools?

Not helping matters is the growing discord over not only what is taught, but how a subject is taught. I recently read a news story titled, "Is U.S. Becoming Hostile to Science?" It described the bitter debate about how evolution is taught in U.S. high schools, how that debate is prompting a crisis and is a warning sign that science itself is under assault, and how this is an issue that could have severe long-term consequences because, again, a good foundation in math and science is essential for pursuing engineering.

This all hits even closer to home for me in my role as a substitute high school math and physics tutor. Our school district has canceled geometry, trigonometry and elementary calculus courses due to lack of interest and enrollment. Algebra is now the highest level of math taught in our high school. Chemistry and physics are combined into one class that's watered down largely because students no longer have the math experience to understand anything beyond the most fundamental principles. This trend seems to be occurring all across the country.

To further illustrate what is happening at the high-school level, I was approached by a local community college to teach courses on mechanical CAD and fundamentals of mechanical design, but both were canceled, again due to lack of interest and because many students lacked the technical background necessary to "get it." This incident really struck me as a statement on the perceived value of a technical education in a profession that is in serious decline.

Knowing that we need a new generation of engineers, the American Society for Engineering Education has produced an interesting book: Engineering, Go For It! The book -- priced at a mere $3 -- is designed to attract high school students and their parents and teachers to the world of engineering and technology by bringing engineering into the world they already know. It's only a book, but it's a start. I encourage you to buy a copy of the book (or two or three) to give to students you know who might benefit from the information or to donate to a local high school or public library.

Change is Mandatory

So what's going to come of all this? Will we be able to attract a new generation of engineers? I honestly can't say, but I do know it's going to require a huge effort to turn things around and keep today's students moving in a positive direction. Many groups are going to have to band together to prevent the situation from worsening: engineering practitioners, industry, education, government, professional organizations and even the media. Will it be easy? No. Can it be done? I don't think we have a choice, because we can ill afford to fall any further behind as an innovator and leader in engineering.

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