The coursework is no picnic, and once you finish, the job market can be iffy. And yet, more U.S. students are enrolled in engineering graduate schools than ever before, according to a new report from the National Science Foundation. They numbered almost half a million in 2002, NSF says, a figure that surpasses by 5 percent the previous peak, achieved in 1993.
"To some extent the all-time high in graduate enrollment in science and engineering is following trends in the total U.S. college-age population," said Jean Johnson, an NSF senior analyst. "In the late 1990s, the U.S. college-age population finally reversed a two-decade-long decline and began an upward trend," reaching 18.5 million by 2000. "And we expect it to continue increasing, to 21.7 million by 2015."
But demographics alone can't account for the entire uptick, Johnson said, especially in fields like electrical and biomedical engineering, which jumped 10.7 percent and 20.3 percent respectively. Here, according to Johnson, engineering specialties on the rise reflect the students' practical eye for interesting employment opportunities. "Much of the increase in specific fields of science and engineering can be attributable to students going where they perceive the jobs to be," said Johnson.
That's certainly the case for a trio of would-be engineers who have already begun to make a mark in the profession Dat Truong and Landon Unninayar of Johns Hopkins and Alia Sabur from Drexel University. "I never wanted to sit in a room all day and theorize, using equations without really doing things," said Sabur, who graduated last year from Stony Brook University in New York at the age of 14, and is now the youngest PhD candidate in the United States at Drexel's College of Engineering, in Philadelphia. "It's not that I have any problem with working out equations, but in engineering, even when you are just theorizing and not actually doing things, you are working toward doing the things you are theorizing about."
In its first look at graduate enrollments in science and engineering since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the NSF reported last month that 455,400 students were studying in those disciplines in the fall of 2002, a new high. The number of postdoctoral appointments also reached a new peak at 32,100, up 6 percent from 2001 (see www.nsf.gov/sbe/srs/infbrief/nsf04326/start.htm).
While full-time, first-time graduate enrollment of foreign students in science and engineering declined by about 2,100 (7.9 percent), the report said, full-time, first-time graduate enrollment increased almost 14 percent for U.S. citizens and permanent residents.
Johnson would not predict whether the drop in new applications from foreign grad students is just a temporary situation caused by delays in visa approval after 9/11, or a permanent trend. For one thing, said Johnson, the Department of Homeland Security is still in possession of the data from 2003, so a second year of downward trend has yet to be officially recorded. However, experts outside government report a sharp drop in new applications.
"U.S. educators report to me that they are seeing a 20 percent drop in applications from foreign students. And Canadian and European graduate schools, as I understand it, are experiencing a corresponding jump in applications," said Mary Jane Irwin, a professor at Penn State University. "Obviously the increased difficulty of getting a visa after 9/11 is discour-
aging foreign students and foreign students are good for the U.S. If they stay on after graduation, they strengthen the nation. If they go home, then hopefully they go as U.S. ambassadors."
If Truong, Unninayar and Sabur are any indication, kids are choosing engineering school for the same reasons they always did: because they are good at math and comfortable with science, but want to apply their talent to solving real-world problems rather than "just" theorizing.
"I knew I wanted to be an engineer even in high school," said Truong, who with Unninayar and other students at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore gained the industry's attention by devising a robot that can be used to safely detect land mines (see June 21, page 4). "Engineering is something you choose because it interests you. It is a lot of work, but it is much more rewarding in the end." The Johns Hopkins graduate is now employed at the U.S. Army Research Lab in Adelphi, Md.
"I have a lot of new skills that I definitely did not have before engineering school and I am able to do a lot more with my degree than just get a job," he said. "I am able to design things now for anybody who describes a problem they need solved, and that is something I will always have no matter what."
Unninayar, a fellow Johns Hopkins School of Engineering grad, is continuing in an accelerated master's program there, and hopes to earn that advanced degree as early as next year. Although he did not want to be an engineer in high school, Unninayar did have all the right tendencies to make him ripe for the picking.
"I was always more interested in the mathematical side of the world than its literature and the like," he said. "But it was during my four years at Johns Hopkins that I really fell in love with robotics."
The land mine detection robot that Unninayar, Truong and others built as their senior design project is currently being studied at the university's Advanced Physics Laboratory for possible deployment by the U.S. Army. For Unninayar, the project represents a confluence of personal goals and the opportunity to make a contribution to the welfare of others.
"I wanted a hands-on robotics project for my senior design project, and the land mine-detecting robot was perfect for that, but I actually chose it for humanitarian reasons," Unninayar said. "I wanted a project where we [students] were responsible for both the design and for making the prototype actually work, but I could have chosen one of the other projects like the unmanned aerial vehicle. When you hear about land mines in the media, it's just too abstract, and what can you do anyway? But when our professor told us the actual statistics about how many people were killed or maimed each year, and I had the opportunity to really do something about it, I just wanted to choose the project that helped all those people."
Sabur, too, is motivated by humanitarian aims. Her research, begun at Stony Brook and continuing now at Drexel, is to apply hollow laser beams to surgery, with a goal of showing how to remove a tumor without damaging the surrounding tissue.
"People have been working on laser surgery, but it can still be harmful to the patient," said Sabur. "What you can do with my method is just remove the tumor without hurting the good tissue around it. It is much less invasive and much less harmful." Sabur uses a so-called "hollow" laser beam, which is shaped like a cone, to "trap the tumor inside it, and then you control it in the manner of optical tweezers." She describes her technique as "very easy and cheap, and pretty much anyone can do it." Sabur plans to graduate from Drexel in 2007 with a PhD in electrical engineering. She is studying under a $150,000 Department of Defense fellowship.
According to Sabur, women choose to become engineers from personal preference, just like men, but peer pressure keeps most girls away. "Engineering is a pretty tough subject, so if you don't like it there is really no point in trying it," she said. "You have to really like it to even be able to do it." Sabur hopes to "encourage other girls to go into science and engineering. It's just something that girls are not encouraged to do, because the stereotype is that scientists just sit in the lab all day and turn into complete weirdos. All the other girls that I know who are approximately my age say they are interested in everything at school except math and science."
The game is up by eighth grade, she feels. "If you decide you hate math and science by the eighth grade, then that's pretty much it. What I want to tell girls is that you can do it, and you don't necessarily have to turn into a weirdo."
Of course, the field can be daunting for anyone, not just girls. "I think that many people are afraid of engineering they don't really see the difference between science and engineering," said Sabur.
Left side, right side
Sabur saw that difference clearly her freshman year in college. "I have always been interested in science and how things work, so when I began college I started in physics," she said. "Then, in the spring of my freshman year, I began work on coherent fiber-optic cables that produce hollow beams and continued for about a year until I realized that in order to make real applications work with these beams, I had to become multidisciplinary. So I started taking courses that would teach me other skills that would pertain to the work I was already doing." Enter engineering.
"I took a few engineering courses and realized that this was a better place for me, because engineering encourages working with other people who are experts in other subjects. What I liked was that the people in the engineering departments had widely varying backgrounds, from physics to math to biology and chemistry and all the different little subjects in between. And since my research pertained to all these areas physics, math, chemistry and biology being in an engineering department made my research much easier to perform, which in turn made me more encouraged about being there."
Sabur balances the left and right sides of her brain by taking a break from her work every couple of hours to play her clarinet. Since studying with virtuoso Ricardo Morales, principal clarinet at the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, at the age of 11, she has played concerts with groups as diverse as the classical pianist Lang Lang and the pop band Smash Mouth (at the opening of the National Children's Museum in Washington, D.C., this year).
"When I am playing music, I am not thinking of whatever math you can find in music I am using a different part of my brain," Sabur said. "Music is just as important to me as the science and engineering aspects of my life. They are both things that I do well. I plan on continuing in engineering and will perhaps teach it someday, but I also plan on continuing performing as a musician too."