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Engineering enrollment for U.S., ND an issue

Kaitlynn Riely | Friday, December 1, 2006

In today’s increasingly technological world, the job prospects for engineers after college are plentiful, but at Notre Dame and at schools across the country, fewer students are choosing engineering as a career. The critical need for young engineers nationwide and the decreasing numbers of engineering majors is the basis of a new guidebook for students and parents called “21 Things Every Future Engineer Should Know.”James Merz, interim dean of the University’s College of Engineering, said there has been a decline in the number of students going into engineering since he attended Notre Dame in the 1950s.The reason for the declining numbers, he thinks, is “lack of enthusiasm nationwide for going into engineering – a perception that engineering’s very hard, and ‘why should I work that hard’?”Catherine Pieronek, the director of Academic Affairs and the Women’s Engineering Program, said the enrollments in engineering schools have been declining since the mid-1980s. Nationwide, approximately 80,000 engineers graduated each year in the mid-80s, and now that number has dropped to approximately 50,000 a year, she said. “We are also facing a situation where a large number of engineers who were educated in the 50s and 60s in this country are getting to the point of retirement and so there is going to be a gap in knowledge,” Pieronek said. “That scares people because it could lead to a gap in innovation, in technological development.” The American economy has thrived for the past 50 years because the country has been so advanced in technological development, she said. Without the people to come up with new ideas, this innovation movement will be hampered. “It’s really hard for an economy to grow when you don’t have new ideas – you don’t have the next iPod or the next amazing communications device,” Pieronek said. “And without engineering talent those things aren’t going to happen.”In 1991, undergraduate engineers – excluding freshmen – made up 14 percent of the University, according to Merz. In 2006, engineers fell to comprise 12.6 percent of University undergraduates. From approximately 1996 until 2000, there was a large dip in the number of engineering students at Notre Dame. Merz credited his predecessor, former dean Frank Incropera, with reversing this sharp decline. Incropera started a campaign to make engineering more interesting to freshmen who intended to declare it as their major. He created a new introduction to engineering class and the Learning Center to encourage their interest. Engineering 111 prepares students for a major in engineering, Merz said. Since the Class of 2004 took EG 111, the retention rate into sophomore year has increased substantially, rising from approximately 55 percent to approximately 75 percent for the Class of 2009, Merz said. But there is still a tendency for students to avoid engineering as a major because of its difficulty, he said. “I would argue that too many students choose easier fields because they are easier fields,” Merz said.

Incorporating women into engineeringPieronek has also questioned why more students are not entering the engineering field, especially women. She said the problem is “puzzling,” especially since women now make up the majority of undergraduate students nationwide.”Between 1987 and 2001, which is the last year for which we have good data, the number of women earning engineering degrees in this country has stayed around 11,000,” Pieronek said. “That number is flat, despite the fact that the number of women in college is close to 60 percent in undergraduate programs across the country.”Companies are increasingly realizing the value of employing women as engineers, Pieronek said, because they realize that women are largely responsible for buying appliances for the home – but most of the engineers who design these appliances are men. “Companies realize now that they need to have women involved in the engineering process, but schools aren’t graduating enough women to fill their demand,” Pieronek said. Women make up 24.6 percent of the undergraduates enrolled in the College of Engineering. Throughout the University, they account for approximately 47 percent of students.To encourage women to enter engineering and support them during their years in the college, the Women’s Engineering Program was started with the entering Class of 2006, Pieronek said. The program is a way for older students to mentor younger students, Pieronek said. “If the younger students see that the older students have gotten through and have thrived and are getting good jobs, the younger students are more likely to believe they can do it,” she said.Since the start of the program, Pieronek said, the retention rate for women has risen. For the graduating Class of 2007, the retention rate for women was approximately equal to the retention rate for men – a significant increase, she said.For the Class of 2005, Pieronek said the retention rate for women was 40 percent from the start of first year to the start of sophomore year, with the retention rate for men at 62 percent. Sophomore Carol Matasci, a chemical engineer, said the support she received from Notre Dame’s chapter of the Society of Women Engineers “was actually part of what helped me decide to stay in engineering.””As a freshman I was pretty intimidated by my classmates,” Matasci said. “Talking to the older girls was kind of encouraging, to see that I could do it.”Matasci said she thinks there is still an expectation that women are more attracted to an Arts and Letters major than to one involving science and technology.”I think women have a different perspective to engineering, and I think when you are trying to solve problems, different ideas and different perspectives are useful to have,” Matasci said.

Diversifying the workplaceThis diversity of thought is an objective that Ivan Favila, the director of the Minority Engineering Program, is trying to achieve.”In order for the engineering innovation to be its strongest here in this country, you will need a diversity of thought that comes from a diversity of people,” he said. “When you have such a majority of like engineers, then you lack that dynamic.”Minority students comprised about 13.4 percent of total undergraduate engineers in 2006.The reason for this low number, Favila said, may be that some minority students who come to Notre Dame don’t know any professional engineers. “Since there is an under-representation of minorities in the engineering workforce, you might see that trickle down to the number of students exposed to engineers and thus we will have a lesser number of minorities go into engineering,” he said. The Minority Engineering Program encourages minority students both to enroll at Notre Dame and to stay in the major once they enter into it. An orientation course advertised for minority students, but open to anyone interested in engineering, provides information about what the discipline entails. Notre Dame’s retention rate for minority engineers between freshman and sophomore year is slightly more than 50 percent, compared to a national retention rate of approximately 34 percent, Favila said. “We are doing a little bit better in terms of national numbers, but 50 percent, at least for me, is not good enough,” he said. The program now has a strong base of people who have graduated from Notre Dame with the help of the Minority Engineering program and who have succeeded as engineering professionals.

Improving engineering’s public relationsThe College of Engineering still wants to increase its undergraduate numbers, Merz said. But part of the problem is the type of students Notre Dame has been admitting. “We can’t get more [engineering majors] if Admissions doesn’t admit more engineering intents,” he said. Part of the problem with attracting students lies in a public relations problem for engineers, Merz said. A new engineering building located prominently on Notre Dame Avenue might do the job of attracting more students, he said. “Since it is right on Notre Dame Avenue, it will be a marvelous public relations institution for the College,” he said. The new building will be located between McKenna Hall and the Hesburgh Center for International Studies. Construction is scheduled to begin in 2008 and be completed by 2010. Engineers will continue to do “a lot of absolutely critical things for society,” Merz said, and Notre Dame engineers will graduate into a good job market. “Every report we get is that employers want to hire Notre Dame engineers,” he said.