PRISM - American Society for Engineering Education - Logo - DECEMBER 2004 - VOLUME 14, NUMBER 4

By Robert Gardner


The latest numbers from the National Science Foundation Science and Engineering Indicators show that although approximately one third of all U.S. undergraduate degrees are earned in science and engineering, the portion of those degrees earned in engineering have been declining for the past 10 years. Since 1975, the United States has dropped from third to thirteenth in terms of the number of 24-year-olds holding natural science and engineering degrees.

Industry and academia say K-12 teachers and high school guidance counselors are the key to bringing more and better prepared students into engineering. "We find high school teachers and guidance counselors aren't pushing math and science," says Ray Haynes, director of university relations for Northrup Grumman. "There are kids coming out of eighth grade who aren't encouraged to go for calculus." Secondary school teachers, on the other hand, maintain that the profession hasn't done enough to change its stuffy image and low profile. Many students don't even know what engineers do.

All this comes as a time when the country is looking for engineers to help strengthen its defenses. "We need to move beyond the 65,000 or so engineers we produce today to 80 to 90,000," says Isadore Davis, manager of engineering university relations at Raytheon Co. With defense spending set to rise 10.3 percent—one of the largest increases in the 2005 budget—the war on terror, the fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the nuclear tensions with North Korea and Iran, the defense industry's demand for engineering students is likely to remain high. "Our technical capability," says Jay Snellenberger, manager of employee development for Rolls-Royce, "is the engine that drives our economy."

Industry and academia have stepped up efforts to direct students into the pipeline leading to engineering programs. Companies involved in defense and aerospace work have a particular interest in getting American students into engineering programs. Most aerospace companies, Northrup Grumman's Haynes says, can hire only U.S. citizens because so much of their work requires security clearances only citizens can obtain. Northrop Grumman's biggest customers, he adds, are the Air Force, NASA, and the Department of Defense. And much of that work is classified. Companies can hire foreign graduates of U.S. schools, but it takes time for them to become citizens and get security clearance. "We could hire a Russian national [for instance], but it could take five years for him to get clearance," Haynes says. "And during that time the person is useless to us."

In addition to increasing the number of high school students going into undergraduate engineering programs, aerospace and defense companies and academia are working to get more engineering students into graduate programs. "We have a big issue in hiring master's and Ph.D. students because so many of them are foreign nationals," Haynes says. "We [the aerospace companies] tend to end up robbing from each other." According to ASEE data, the percentage of doctoral degrees awarded to foreign nationals rose from 45.6 to 55.2 percent from 1999 to 2003. The percentage of master's degrees awarded to foreign nationals rose from 39.7 to 46 percent over the same period.

"Brain drain is a big problem and we're all worried about it," says Joseph Tidwell, coordinator of engineering and technical education for the Boeing Co. Recruiting graduate students has proven particularly difficult. "We hurt the worst when we go after graduate students for defense work," Tidwell says.

The United States has long relied on international students to fill its graduate engineering programs and stay in this country after getting their degrees. "International students for decades have been coming here to be educated and many have stayed to become the great engineers and technologists of this country," says Eva Pell, dean of graduate studies at Pennsylvania State University.

"We've had a drop of over 40 percent in the number of international graduate student applications," Pell says. Last year, the top research universities across the country experienced, on average, a drop of 32 percent in international student applications. There are a number of reasons for this, from the SARS scare closing Chinese GRE testing centers to stricter, post-9/11 security measures that tend to make foreigners feel unwelcome, and competition from universities in the United Kingdom and Australia. "For a long time the United States was the only game on the planet in terms of providing a quality technical education," Pell says. "That's not the case anymore."

Educators say that the recruitment burden isn't just the responsibility of high school and middle school teachers. "There is a problem at the university level in terms of directing students into graduate school," Pell says. "They don't see the value of engineering, so many of them go into law or business."

It's Not Just About Defense - Defense and aerospace companies aren't the only ones interested in producing more domestic engineering graduates. Hewlett-Packard, which has a number of outreach programs aimed at K-12 students, is one such company. WHERE TO LOOK

Aerospace and defense companies are reaching out to K-12 students. "By the time you get to junior and senior year in high school, it's almost too late," Northrup Grumman's Haynes says.

"Like most companies, we're doing things with school boards and universities regionally," Boeing's Tidwell says. That includes directing money toward universities that provide training for teachers of science- and engineering-related subjects. Boeing has sent over 100 teachers to the National Space Camp. The company also participates in the national "Job Shadow Day" in which high school teachers are brought into companies and allowed to "shadow" an engineer to see how the technical subject matter taught in schools is applied.

Boeing's outreach program also focuses on student retention. For the past 12 years, the company has teamed with local school boards and universities to participate in the "Choices" program. Offered in 40 states, the program brings ninth graders into Boeing facilities for two one-hour sessions during which they talk to an engineer and learn about different career options.

In the large Hispanic population in Arizona, where one of Boeing's regional offices is located, children often leave school and take up their parents' line of work. This happens for both cultural reasons and out of economic necessity. "We talk to them [the students] and show them how school is important to them, their families, and their futures," Tidwell says.

Northrup Grumman's outreach work is also handled by people in local offices because they know the needs of the community. The Northrup Grumman foundation distributes money across the country in the form of grants that address education-related initiatives that promote the advancement of literacy, math, science, and technology. A portion of that money goes to the Redondo Beach school district near Northrup Grumman's Beverly Hills headquarters. The company provides funding and school supplies for things like science fairs. Like Boeing and Raytheon, Northrup Grumman supports numerous efforts to increase diversity within engineering. All three are corporate sponsors of the Society of Black Engineers.

Raytheon is actively involved with SECME Inc., a nonprofit organization that works with companies, universities, and school systems to prepare underrepresented students to study science-, technology-, and engineering-related subjects in college. They send their engineers out to talk to students about how engineering is responsible for almost all of today's new technology.

At the university level, Raytheon employees serve on advisory boards across the country. They advise deans and professors on curriculum development, the latest technology, and attributes industry is looking for in engineering graduates. "We are the customers of universities," Davis says. His company has also worked with schools such as the University of Puerto Rico and the University of Texas-El Paso to help them prepare for ABET accreditors' visits to evaluate how well their programs have met Engineering Criterion 2000.

The Rolls-Royce company is partnering with Purdue University, the Indiana state government, and Project Lead the Way to give K-12 students an inside look at manufacturing. Called "Building the Innovation Generation," the collaboration's goal is to get students excited about engineering, says Jay Snellenberger, manager, employee development, strategic engineering, and business development. Rolls-Royce brings engineering faculty members to their facilities to give them real world experience they can take back to the classroom. The education and outreach model the collaboration is developing is applicable to disciplines outside engineering, and the partners intend to hand it off to any interested parties.


When Northrup Grumman's Ray Haynes spoke recently to a group of cadets at the U.S. Air Force Academy, he asked how many were taking engineering. Half of them raised their hands. "The Air Force used to get all their engineers from the academy," Haynes says. "Now they have to go elsewhere as well."

Foreign nationals have long played a big part in the nation's engineering workforce. But increased security needs and a drop in international applications have underscored the importance of increasing the number of domestic graduate students becoming engineers. With terrorism on the rise and nuclear threats from a number of countries, the United States needs engineers as fast as universities can produce them.

Robert Gardner is associate editor of Prism.


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On Campus: Rising to the Top - By Robert Gardner
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