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Pursuing New Paths

The number of chemical engineering grads continues to decline, but that may be partly because students are being wooed away to bioengineering departments.

- By Bethany Halford

Chemical Engineering has a PR problem. When it comes to attracting new students, enrollment in chemical engineering lags behind the other three disciplines—civil, electrical, and mechanical—in engineering's “big four.” This is odd because with just a bachelor's degree, an inexperienced chemical engineer fresh out of college can earn over $50,000 annually, more than B.S. graduates in any other engineering field. And chemical engineers have played integral roles in shaping the technology of the modern world—developing products from plastics to penicillin to polyester. But in the minds of bright engineering students eager to make their mark on the world, the word “chemical” tends to conjure images of massive, smoke-belching factories and oil refineries rather than the robust field that forms thea PR problem. When it comes to attracting new students, enrollment in chemical engineering lags behind the other three disciplines—civil, electrical, and mechanical—in engineering's “big four.” This is odd because with just a bachelor's degree, an inexperienced chemical engineer fresh out of college can earn over $50,000 annually, more than B.S. graduates in any other engineering field. And chemical engineers have played integral roles in shaping the technology of the modern world—developing products from plastics to penicillin to polyester. But in the minds of bright engineering students eager to make their mark on the world, the word “chemical” tends to conjure images of massive, smoke-belching factories and oil refineries rather than the robust field that forms the foundation for environmental, materials, and biological engineering, and is a key player in nanotechnology.

Things had been looking up for the field. Throughout the 1990s the number of students earning degrees in chemical engineering was on the rise. Bachelor's degrees in chemical engineering went from around 3,600 in 1991 to just over 6,800 in 1997, an increase of 89 percent. During the same period, the number of students earning bachelor's degrees rose by 44 percent for civil engineering, but declined by 3 percent for mechanical engineering and 32 percent for electrical and electronic engineering.

After the peak in 1997 the trend reversed and there has been a steady decline in the number of degrees earned in chemical engineering. Since 1999, the number of bachelor's degrees awarded in chemical engineering has decreased 11 percent and the number of master's 17 percent. Furthermore, enrollment figures indicate that the decline is likely to continue. Full-time undergraduate enrollment in chemical engineering declined from 28,006 in 1999 to 22,045 in 2002.

Chemical engineering education has gone through up-and-down cycles before. Enrollments soared in response to the oil embargoes of the 1970s, with students hoping to find a solution to the nation's energy woes. But then many of the traditional jobs for chemical engineers dried up in the 1980s. Still, many found work in consumer products and the emerging semiconductor industry.

Chemical engineering educators say that the job market may account for some of the recent shift of students from chemical engineering, but most point to an entirely different phenomenon: Students who would normally pursue chemical engineering degrees are being siphoned off by the new crop of biomedical and biomolecular engineering departments.

“There is this perception that an environmental engineering or a biomedical engineering degree will be a better ticket to a job at the bachelor's level,” says Mike Dudukovic, chairman of the department of chemical engineering at Washington University in St. Louis. “There are no data to support that, but it is the perception that counts.”

According to Dudukovic, until a few years ago, between 30 and 40 of the 230 incoming engineering students at Washington University would choose to major in chemical engineering. Now it's more like 12 to 20. He traces the origin of the decline to 1997, when the university opened its new biomedical engineering department. It seemed like a natural move for the school, with its strong engineering program and top-ranked medical school. The new department attracted plenty of students. In fact, these days about a third of first-year students at Washington University plan to major in biomedical engineering. But because the engineering school didn't increase overall enrollment, the biomedical engineering department's success came at the expense of the other departments, especially chemical engineering.

Other chemical engineering educators are seeing the same phenomenon. Students who like chemistry and have an interest in molecular physical sciences—who would normally make up the bread and butter of chemical engineering programs—are being wooed away by biomedical and environmental engineering. As Dudukovic suggests, they think they can get better jobs with those degrees, and they also think their talents would be better rewarded in biological, environmental, and materials engineering.

That perception is part of chemical engineering's PR problem. And it frustrates chemical engineering educators like Dudukovic, who argue that biological and environmental engineering, along with other high-profile fields like materials science and nanotechnology, are all rooted in chemical engineering. “On the undergraduate level, at least, chemical engineering provides the broadest background,” he contends.

Dianne Dorland, the American Institute of Chemical Engineers' (AIChE) current president agrees, “The whole nanotech world is actually a world that chemical engineers have been working in for years; we just didn't refer to it as nanotech.” She adds, “There are a number of other areas that are developing—electronic and telecommunications—but the underlying growth of hardware is chemical engineering. Chemical engineers may not be used in the same numbers as in the petroleum industry, but they are an integral and important part of those manufacturing processes.”

Dorland is also the dean of the college of engineering at Rowan University and says that while Rowan (which does not have a separate bioengineering department) has not seen a substantial decline in chemical engineering students, the school has had to step up its recruiting efforts. “We've noticed that we must recruit more vigorously in chemical engineering than in other disciplines to maintain the same student body.” Furthermore, she adds, “We have to explain to recruits what chemical engineers are and what they do.” She says that students see reports in the popular media about biomedical engineering breakthroughs—things like the Human Genome Project and cartilage and organs grown in the lab—and it's easy for them to see how bioengineering can meet readily identifiable societal needs. So they don't even consider that chemical engineering also benefits society.

Not all chemical engineering programs have suffered because of biomedical engineering's growing popularity. Some have actually benefited from the shift. “We've bucked the trend, I guess,” says John Anderson, dean of engineering at Carnegie Mellon University. According to Anderson, there has actually been an increase in chemical engineering students at his school. Carnegie Mellon does offer a biomedical engineering major, but in order to earn that degree, students must also have a joint degree in one of the school's five traditional majors—civil, mechanical, electrical, computer, or chemical engineering. “Chemical engineering is a natural second major for biomedical engineering,” Anderson says, and so the department's ranks have grown.

Name Change

Rather than lose their students, many schools have decided to embrace chemical engineering's new direction and have changed their departments' names from “chemical engineering” to broader ones, such as “chemical and biological engineering” or “chemical and environmental engineering.” According to AIChE, nearly one third of chemical engineering departments share their official titles with biological, environmental, or materials engineering.

The new departments have drawn criticism from chemical engineering educators who say that the name is really the only thing about the departments that has changed. When Carnegie Mellon's chemical engineering department asked to change its name, Anderson insisted that the faculty would also have to make major changes to the curriculum. “My criticism of schools that change their name without changing their curriculum is that it is more of a marketing ploy than a substantive change,” he says. Ultimately, Carnegie Mellon's chemical engineering department decided not to rename itself.

Washington University's Dudukovic and Rowan's Dorland both point to the profound effect that the Whitaker Foundation—an organization established to fund biomedical engineering projects—has had in influencing chemical engineering to move more toward biology. The foundation has spent $800 million since 1991 to develop biomedical engineering as a discipline. A large portion of that money has gone into establishing or enhancing biomedical engineering departments by constructing new buildings, renovating old ones, and bringing in faculty with a more biological bent. A number of chemical engineering educators correlate the foundation's spending spree with the chemical engineering departments' sudden urge to amend their names. “If you're going to give away millions of dollars for something that looks good and makes sense anyway and all you have to do is rename yourself, well why wouldn't you?” asks Dorland.

Frank Blanchard, Whitaker's director of communications, says that the foundation was careful not to fund programs that were making only cosmetic changes. And he says that blaming chemical engineering's decline on bioengineering's rise is sort of a chicken-and-egg problem. Did biomedical engineering entice students away from chemical engineering, or was it the desire of chemical engineering students to pursue more biological fields that spawned the new departments in the first place?
“Bioengineering is the hot engineering discipline right now, and students tend to go to those hot disciplines,” says Daniel Hammer. Hammer used to be a professor of chemical engineering, but now he is the chair of the department of bioengineering at the University of Pennsylvania. Unlike many chemical engineers, he bristles at the assertion that bioengineering is just a subdiscipline of chemical engineering.

“Bioengineering is by no means derivative of chemical engineering,” says Hammer. And he contends that it's that type of thinking that has been part of chemical engineering's downfall. “Overall, chemical engineering has missed an opportunity in growth by failing to take advantage of student interest in bioengineering,” he says.

Still, no one thinks that chemical engineering is down for the count. “I genuinely believe that chemical engineering will remain viable and strong,” Dudukovic says.

However, with breakthroughs in biology on the cutting edge of science, educators also say that their courses will have to address what's going on at the chemistry-biology interface in order to keep up with technology. “I don't think chemical engineering is going to decline further as long as it reacts to realities of the economy and student interest. The basic tools that chemical engineers learn are still relevant even if there is a shift to biological systems,” Anderson says. And chemical engineering educators reckon that shift represents a sea change for chemical engineering. “It's not that we're going to abandon chemistry,” Dorland says. “What we're doing is simply broadening our scope to incorporate biological systems into chemical engineering—and that makes sense.”

 

Bethany Halford is a freelance writer based in Baltimore. She can be reached at b.halford@asee.org.

 

 
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