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American Society for Engineering EducationOCTOBER 2006Volume 16 | Number 2 PRISM HOMETABLE OF CONTENTSBACK ISSUES
Trouble on the Horizon - BY THOMAS K. GROSE
Tulane's Next Move - BY JEFFREY SELINGO

REFRACTIONS: Engineering and the City - By Henry Petroski

BOOK REVIEW: An Inconvenient Truth - BY ROBIN TATU
BOOK REVIEW: Leonardo's Lost Robots - BY ROBIN TATU
ON CAMPUS: Ready, Get Set, Go!

COVER STORY: Trouble on the Horizon - ASEE’s new numbers show declining enrollments, particularly among women. - BY THOMAS K. GROSE - INFOGRAPHIC BY STEPHEN ROUNTREE  
At a time when the nation needs more engineers to stay competitive, ASEE’s new numbers show declining enrollments, particularly among women.

WOMEN EARNING B.S. ENGINEERING DEGREESNot long ago, while hosting an event at Michigan’s Kettering University to introduce high schoolers to engineering, Betty Shanahan, executive director of the Society of Women Engineers, sat next to a young woman—a high school junior—during a banquet. The girl’s mother wanted her to consider an engineering career, but the young woman was eager to go into medicine instead. Shanahan suggested that she take engineering as a “pre-med bachelor’s degree,” which would later give her two options: either to pursue an M.D. or remain in engineering. What did the girl ultimately decide? Shanahan doesn’t know. But the girl’s lack of enthusiasm for engineering isn’t unique—especially among young women.

FULL-TIME FRESHMAN ENGINEERING ENROLLMENTThat’s a message that comes through clearly in statistics recently compiled by the American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE) for the 2004-05 academic year. They indicate that engineering graduation and enrollment rates at U.S. universities are not keeping up with the country’s increasing demand for engineering talent. To be sure, there was a fractional uptick in the number of bachelor’s degrees conferred, continuing a growth cycle that began in 2000. But enrollments are down for the second year running, an indication that graduation rates will soon follow. Moreover, on a per capita basis, less than 5 percent of all undergraduate degrees were awarded to engineers, compared with almost 8 percent in 1985.

BACHELOR’S DEGREES IN ENGINEERINGA big reason for the demand gap: two huge talent pools that could help bolster student numbers remain largely untapped. Engineering does not attract sufficient numbers of women (who comprise 56 percent of the U.S. population) or African-Americans and Hispanic-Americans (who together account for 25 percent of the population), despite ongoing recruitment efforts to increase their representation. The number of women either earning undergraduate degrees in engineering or enrolling in engineering programs declined last year, while the graduation rate for blacks and Hispanics hasn’t moved in a decade—it’s still a combined total of about 11 percent.

One problem, says Jacquelynne Eccles, a research scientist at the University of Michigan’s Institute for Research on Women and Gender and coauthor of a big 2003 study on why girls shun careers in engineering and science, is that despite good intentions, programs to increase diversity in engineering have actually lost funding since the 1980s. “There may be more rhetoric now than actual funding,” she says. Indeed, Legand Burge, dean of the College of Engineering, Architecture and Physical Sciences at Tuskegee University, says “there needs to be more of a national commitment to improve the teaching of technology” at the pre-collegiate level to get young people more interested in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) degrees.


African-Americans received just 5.3 percent of the engineering bachelor’s degrees awarded last year, while Hispanics received 5.8 percent. That’s little changed from 1999, when the graduation rate for blacks was 5.4 percent and for Hispanics, 5.8 percent. Women received 19.5 percent of the degrees awarded in 2005, down from 20.3 percent a year earlier. That decline won’t be stopping soon, either. Enrollment levels for women have also fallen to 17.5 percent. Women are, however, fairly strongly represented within some disciplines. Women took home 42.9 percent of the environmental engineering degrees awarded and 42.4 percent of the biomedical engineering degrees. Other engineering disciplines in which female graduates are better represented are agricultural, chemical, industrial/manufacturing and metallurgical/materials. But those are six niche fields, accounting for just 17 percent of all engineering degrees. Within the six engineering disciplines that comprise 63 percent of all degrees—mechanical, aerospace, computer, computer science, electrical and electrical/computer—female students remain as rare as Apple computers in a Microsoft world. For instance, only 11.3 percent of computer engineering degrees went to women; and just 13 percent of the mechanical engineering graduates were women.


Young women are drawn to disciplines that have an obvious altruistic quality to them, such as environmental or biomedical engineering. Eccles’ 2003 Michigan study found that girls who are confident in their math abilities tend to want to improve society and place more value on fields they think are people-oriented. The profession needs to do a better job of showing girls that degrees in, say, mechanical or electrical engineering can be wonderful gateways to medical or environmental work. “We need to stress the areas they can work in, not the disciplines,” Shanahan says. Adds Eccles: “We’ve got to get the message out that other fields of engineering can help society, too. Girls are making these career decisions pretty much on (false) stereotypes.” Schoolgirls need to learn that the clean water we drink, the high-tech hip replacements that surgeons implant and the fuel-efficient hybrid cars are all the
handiwork of engineers, Shanahan says. “We’re the invisible profession. We don’t make clear the impact we make in the world.”

Young women also don’t realize that an engineering degree can be a first-class ticket to other professions. Indeed, a 2004 National Academy of Engineering report says that within 15 years, engineers will be in demand as leaders in a wide swath of professions, from medicine to government to finance.

Getting the Word Out

But these “good news” messages aren’t being properly communicated to young women. Last year, a study conducted by the WGBH Educational Foundation for the Extraordinary Women Engineers project found that in choosing careers, girls wanted to “make a difference,” work with people, have job flexibility and earn good money. But when engineers visit classrooms, they tend to stress the drudgery of the hard coursework involved and the need to master difficult math. Yet, when asked separately what they liked about their jobs, most engineers said they like making a difference, teamwork and being able to work on projects from start to finish—all things that would resonate with high school girls but are rarely mentioned. Shanahan says it’s a good bet that when doctors talk to students, “they don’t emphasize that you have to go to school for 10 years and when you graduate you’ll have a mountain of debt.” Engineers also need to get the message out that it’s a profession that can begin after just four years of school and boasts starting salaries of around $50,000, she adds.


Even if engineers succeed in gaining the interest of young women, African-Americans and Hispanics, there’s often another hurdle to overcome: skeptical guidance counselors, teachers and parents—influential folks whose judgments are also skewed toward the negative by hoary stereotypes and limited information. “We need to place more emphasis on counselors, teachers and parents because not only do they often not push them into science and math, they push them away,” Dean Burge says. Adds Shanahan: “We are failing to get the word out to them. They are not leveraged as much as they could be.” Burge suggests that each of the nation’s 344 schools of engineering should form a “mentor” relationship with at least one local high school to help it improve its teaching of STEM subjects. That would also be a way to educate more teachers and counselors on the value of engineering degrees, he says. “It could help put more folks in the pipeline.” Minority graduation rates would also improve, Burge says, if more could be done to help students who are making the grade cover rising costs for tuition, fees, books and room and board. “A lot of kids leave because they don’t have the money.”


Burge recalls how his love of engineering was sparked by the space program of the 1950s and ’60s. But in today’s tech-laden society, where many scientific breakthroughs are taken for granted, it’s harder to generate the same kind of excitement. Burge says he would like to see a greater effort made to introduce engineering and more interesting science and math programs at an earlier age, at the K-6 level, when many students—not just blacks and Hispanics—tend to tune those subjects out. “We have to start recapturing the younger students,” he says.

Certainly American engineering schools’ doctoral programs are continuing to capture an increasing number of students—especially foreign students. Enrollment in Ph.D. programs increased nearly 2 percent to 57,077. And almost 60 percent of the doctorates awarded last year went to foreign nationals; that’s up from 45.6 percent in 1999. But here’s another worry: As Thomas L. Friedman noted in his recent bestselling book about globalization, “The World Is Flat:” “ ... many of the engineering degrees being granted by American universities are going not to American citizens but to foreign students, who will return to their home countries.” (Friedman is talking about Ph.D. degrees. Relatively few undergraduate engineering degrees go to foreign students.) Michigan’s Eccles argues that’s not such a bad thing—that helping train the future leaders of developing countries is something the United States should do. “If we are worried about our own labor market,” she says, “we should make (engineering) more attractive to our own citizens.” Perhaps. But, as Friedman notes, America also needs to retain its innovative edge for economic and security reasons—and for that, it’s long been reliant upon foreign brain power. He points out, for example, that it’s a good thing that Russian-born Sergey Brin decided to stay in the United States—he cofounded Google, the Internet search engine that’s now a mega-size American company. Any foreign student who earns a Ph.D. from an accredited American university should automatically be given a five-year visa, Friedman argues. “If we can cream off the first-round intellectual draft choices from around the world, it will always end up a net plus for America.”

At the faculty level, the diversity picture is also mixed. The percentages of African-Americans and Hispanic-Americans among tenured or tenure-track faculty are essentially unchanged from the previous year, at 2.4 percent and 2.3 percent, respectively. But the percentage of women faculty is edging upward: last year it was at 10.6 percent, up from 8.9 percent in 2001. So, if Betty Shanahan did convince that young Michigan high-school girl to enroll in an engineering program, at least she’ll see a few more role models around.

Thomas K. Grose is a freelance writer for many national publications, including Time and U.S. News & World Report.



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