Keeping Engineering in the U.S. Relevant

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By Chris Knutson, P.E.

With completion of the recent U.S. and China summit, increased media attention has been focused on the need for expanding bilateral links between the two countries. The shift from a strong linkage between the U.S. and Europe to one with the Far East is only a change in longitude. It has not changed the fact that to continue both growth and the ability to influence our nation’s future, the U.S. must be engaged in the world. And, we must actively accept the challenge to stay engaged outside our borders and embrace diversity within our borders.

Books such as Tom Friedman’sThe World is Flatmay seem gloomy about the U.S.’s ability to compete in the global marketplace and our future in it. Add to this statistics for the number of four-year engineering school graduates from China and India versus the U.S. and one might become downright discouraged:

  • One unknown source puts the numbers at 600,000 engineering graduates from China, 350,000 from India, and 70,000 from the U.S.
  • A 2005 study from Duke University puts the numbers at 352,000; 112,000; and 137,000, respectively.

However you stack the numbers, the U.S. has a deficit. Why? And what needs to be done to discourage aspiring engineers from downshifting to other degree programs?

First, why the disparity? Demographics and population. First off, the populations of China and India are 1.3 billion and 1.1 billion versus 307 million in the U.S. Just by linear extrapolation there’s going to be more engineering graduates. Next is demographics. The number of 18-24 year olds in the U.S. is about 26 million, and the figures for China and India, although even more murky than the numbers of graduates, are significantly higher and projected to be so. What does this mean? A larger pool for engineering students.

Second, what needs to be done to keep engineering students engaged in engineering? I offer my opinion based on what it’s taken to keep young officers interested in staying on active duty:

1.Make it Relevant.Anecdotally most engineer students drop out in the first or second year due to the core classes, such as physics and calculus. Why? These subjects aren’t glaringly relevant. Yes, everyone knows you need to know this material to be an engineer, but it’s hard to make that connection if you’re in a lecture hall with 400 other students (yes, I was the product of a public university).

2.Make it Real.Hands-on is the greatest way to learn, period. In the trades, apprentices and journeymen must complete both bookwork and hands-on tasks to demonstrate competency. Engineering curriculums by-and-large do not. Important? See point #1—the hands-on work makes it relevant and makes it real.

3.Make Responsibility.People react favorably to responsibility. Engineering is a profession of and about responsibility. Making any task relevant and real will lead to the participant taking responsibility.

Does this work? In my experience with keeping young engineer officers past their first enlistment, yes. And it makes sense, because this is what it took for me to stay with engineering during college, stay on active duty as long as I have and, quite frankly, stay engaged with any endeavor I’ve undertaken. Make it real, make relevant, and make responsibility.

NSPE member Chris Knutson, P.E., has over 17 years in the U.S. Air Force as an engineer officer and currently serves as a lieutenant colonel commanding a civil engineer squadron in New Mexico. He is a member of the NSPE Mentoring Task Force.

Published March 1, 2011 by Austin Lin

Filed under: students, Tom Friedman,

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