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Last Word

- By Carol B. Muller and Susan Staffin Metz   


Increase the pipeline!" has been a rallying cry for those concerned about the health of America's engineering workforce. There are serious questions as to whether we will have sufficient emerging technical talent to fill the future needs of industry, government, and higher education. In meeting after meeting, policymakers, government officials, corporate executives, and educators bemoan the ever-shrinking "pipeline." This pipeline is assumed to be widest at its opening, perhaps among the cohorts in kindergarten; but it leaks profusely and narrows precipitously all along the educational path. While the "pipeline" metaphor is powerful, we need to stop thinking of preparation for engineering education and employment as a strictly linear process—a leaky pipeline with no new entry points. Instead of maintaining this status quo and continuing to try only to load the "pipeline" back in elementary school, we need to think creatively about many new entry points to this system.

This problem is not just early preparation in science and math for more students. High school girls are now taking advanced math and science courses at approximately the same rates as boys. Gender differences in preparation for engineering lie not in ability or achievement, but in interest among girls, which is astonishingly low. (And it is also too low among boys.) The usual set of solutions is limited by common perceptions of how interest can be cultivated. Our blind spots include assumptions that interest only develops at a very early age. But such interest is not just intrinsic; it's often a matter of influential events and people in individuals' lives at different stages. In the current systems, too few students have opportunities until they get to college to explore or even gain a definition of engineering. Most Americans know extremely little about what engineers do despite the fact that engineering is the second largest profession in the United States. So it's not surprising that one of the most likely predictors of a student choosing a college major in engineering is having a parent who is an engineer, and even those students are not clear about what their father or mother does all day.

The prevailing assumption for many engineering degree programs is that pre-college students decide they want to be engineers by age 17, prior to submitting their college admissions applications. Research shows that girls in particular, but also a large number of boys, are not ready to narrow their choices at that time in their lives. Nor should they have to. And often the jam-packed engineering curriculum precludes participation in other areas of interest. When confronted with this competitive circumstance, engineering—a white male-dominated profession, surrounded by less than auspicious stereotypes (nerdy, robotic, inflexible)—loses every time, particularly among women and people of color.

What other options can we offer? In reality, there are a number of other alternatives that could be further developed. These include dual degree programs, community college transfer programs, and design-your-own major opportunities. But the pipeline metaphor fails to recognize these strategies. A two-year, intensive, fast-paced, post-baccalaureate master's degree in engineering fields, for those who pursued other undergraduate degrees, could serve to bring a lot more people into engineering and further its status as a profession commensurate with law or medicine. While there are some limited opportunities for other entry points to engineering degrees besides deciding as a high school senior, they're not well known and are limited in scope. If we want to attract the most talented technical workforce possible, it is critical that we offer men and women of all colors the greatest number of opportunities.

As we consider how best to help human talents and interests develop, let's recognize that we don't have to force them into a shrinking "pipeline." Instead, let's work actively to create and promote a variety of possible avenues to the engineering profession that aren't exclusively linked to youthful commitment.