PARK RIDGE, Ill. Troubled by a shortage of homegrown graduates, U.S. engineering schools are looking into new ways of hanging onto their students. Nearly two-thirds of all electronic-engineering students in the United States flunk out or quit, resulting in a shortage that is filled by engineers from other countries. By most estimates, the United States now imports more engineers every year than it graduates from engineering schools.
"Every year, we're educating about half the number of engineers that the country needs and importing the rest," said Ben G. Streetman, dean of the College of Engineering at the University of Texas at Austin and a member of the National Academy of Engineering. "That's a prescription for going out of business as a country."
The United States imported 90,000 engineers and computer scientists in 2000, he said, while graduating 65,000 engineers and 15,000 computer scientists.
Engineering educators have long understood that U.S. high school students shy away from engineering as too tough and too "nerdy," but more recently they have become concerned that students who enter engineering as freshmen often don't stay. Many educators have begun laying the blame at their own doorsteps, saying that curriculums are too steeped in theory and too short on creativity and design experience.
Educators say their schools need to do a better job of introducing design work to first- and second-year students, inculcating them with a hands-on feel for their chosen profession. They also hope to take a "just-in-time" approach to the heavy doses of math and theoretical sciences that have driven many students away.
"A lot of people who want to be engineers come to school, immediately get two years of math and science, and then drop out," said Frank Huband, executive director of the American Society for Engineering Education (Washington). "Many of them are gone before they've had a chance to take a real engineering course."
Little-discussed in the education debate is the possibility that engineering is simply losing its luster as a career choice. In an open letter to Congress this past week, IEEE-USA president LeEarl A. Bryant, P.E., said that long hours, stressful job conditions and other factors are converging to "make careers in engineering less attractive," leading "the best and brightest U.S. students . . . to find jobs in other fields, thus making the U.S. even more dependent on non-U.S. sources of engineering talent. It is a dangerous cycle that over the long haul puts America's ability to innovate and compete in a global economy at risk." And the reliance on "non-U.S. sources for our technical know-how" raises "countless security questions," she said.
In truth, engineering schools have a long record of student attrition. Educators say that the percentage of flunk-outs and transfers hasn't changed much over the years. But now observers are beginning to wonder what will happen if the well of imported engineers dries up. "A lot of companies are concerned about it because you can't count on being able to import engineers forever," Streetman said. "As other countries improve their technological sophistication, their engineers will stay there instead of coming to the U.S."
If that happens, observers believe that U.S. industry will face a terrible shortage of technical talent. "It's a problem of national importance," Streetman said. "Unless we figure out how to increase the number of homegrown engineers, the long-range future of the U.S. economy could look pretty bleak."
Upping the number of graduates, however, may require a major overhaul of the educational system, many believe. For many years, engineering schools have been losing students to other areas of study. Not only are engineering studies difficult, but students often don't see a connection between the early, theory-intensive curriculum and the actual practice of engineering.
"There's a sense among students of, 'Why should I stay? My friends are studying half as long as me and having a better time,' " said Ray Almgren, vice president of product strategy for National Instruments (Austin, Texas), which is working with the University of Texas on an educational overhaul. "This is an issue that all engineering schools have to deal with."
Educators say that the science-laden approach to engineering education began shortly after World War II. Until that time, engineering curriculums typically started students with practical courses, such as drawing, surveying and manufacturing. But as physicists led the way to the development of radar and the atomic bomb during the war, university deans began creating curriculums that provided a broad foundation in science. Since the late 1950s, engineering schools have demanded that students do the coursework for a broad science foundation in their first two years. Most start with courses in calculus, classical physics, modern physics, chemistry, thermodynamics, fluid mechanics, circuit theory and mechanics of materials before learning anything about design.
Many educators blame the science-heavy approach for the high dropout and flunk rate. According to most statistics, engineering schools graduate between one-third and one-half of the students who start out in engineering programs. Electrical engineering is particularly hard hit, with approximately 20,000 students graduating out of the 60,000 who enter EE programs each year, according to statistics from Prentice-Hall Inc. (Upper Saddle River, N.J.), which is believed to be the world's biggest engineering-textbook publisher.
"New students get excited about doing electronics engineering, but then they do a year of complete and utter theoretical drudgery," said Tony Ambler, chairman of the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at the University of Texas at Austin. "The theory is necessary, but there's no reason we can't give them a taste of real engineering in the first year."
With that in mind, many colleges have already started an overhaul. A few are adopting a just-in-time approach to math and science, starting students out with design courses, then weaving in math and science as needed throughout the learning process. Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology (Terre Haute, Ind.) and Drexel University (Philadelphia), among others, have already launched such programs, said Huband of the American Society for Engineering Education.
The University of Texas at Austin has restructured its mechanical-engineering curriculum to use a "project-based" form of education, in which students pick up their math, physics, thermodynamics or other theoretical coursework as needed in the design process.
While such methods are clearly gathering steam, many believe that a wholesale changeover will be slow in coming, particularly in big public schools, where math and physics departments are expected to resist. "In the best case, you could use 'just-in-time' across all four years," Huband said. "But you'd have to motivate the math and physics teachers to coordinate their schedules with engineering." Huband believes such efforts would reduce the size of university math and physics departments, since fewer instructors would be needed to teach so-called "survey courses."
Many schools that are not employing the just-in-time technique are nonetheless pushing design courses into the freshman year. UT-Austin, for example, now teaches a computer architecture class to its EE freshmen.
"We're giving freshmen an opportunity to look at what a computer really is and how it works," Ambler said. "They have to do machine code programming and assembly language to make the computer work." The UT plans to offer a similar course in telecommunications to freshmen next spring, Ambler said.
Moreover, a growing number of college engineering programs are incorporating more hands-on engineering skills into introductory courses by using learning tools such as Mindstorms from Lego Americas (Enfield, Conn.) and RoboLab, a software program created by National Instruments, Lego Educational Division and Tufts University (Medford, Mass.). Engineering professors say that such systems give students a better understanding of working electrical devices and measurement techniques.
At least 24 university engineering programs have worked directly with Lego to employ such systems, a Lego spokesman said. Among them are Carnegie-Mellon, Clemson, Cornell, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Pennsylvania State and Purdue, among others. The company said it does not know how many additional schools are also using Mindstorms product purchased off the shelf.
The result of a collaboration between engineers at Lego and MIT, Mindstorms includes a Lego "brick" that incorporates a microprocessor. Students can program the MPU to run motors and sensors attached to the system, and can type commands in a simple programming language. Using the RoboLab product, which is a simplified version of National Instruments' LabView software, they can also incorporate more-advanced control and test commands.
"This is part of an effort for courses to move beyond the theoretical," said Mitchel Resnick, a professor at the MIT Media Laboratory (Cambridge, Mass.). "We think the best learning occurs when people are designing or creating."
Observers hope that such efforts will motivate existing engineering students to remain in their chosen fields, and that parallel labors will draw more high school students to consider engineering as a college curriculum.
As part of an effort known as the Infinity Project, engineers from Texas Instruments, Southern Methodist University and other organizations are even trying to get engineering into high school curriculums.
The project, in part, has a team of college authors working with Prentice Hall on an engineering textbook for high school students.
"We think that if students have a better idea of what engineering is about before they enter college, a lot of the retention problems can be alleviated," said Tom Robbins, a publisher for Prentice Hall.