Changes in the global environment require changes in engineering education. Markets, companies, and supply chains have become much more international and engineering services are often sourced to the countries that can provide the best value. Basic engineering skills (such as knowledge of the engineering fundamentals) have become commodities that can be provided by lower cost engineers in many countries, and some engineering jobs traditionally done in the U.S. are increasingly done overseas. To respond to this changing context, U.S. engineers need new skill sets not easily replicated by low-wage overseas engineers.The first point speaks to the increasing globalization of our economy and the challenges of off-shoring. Number two and three are particularly daunting. It's very true that the general public doesn't understand what an engineer is or does. Lastly, is student retention. Our engineering students are among the best at each of our institutions. They have to be, because engineering is such a difficult field. Unfortunately, this inherent difficulty results in lower enrollments, greater attrition, under-prepared students, and losing students to less demanding disciplines.
Society at large does not have an accurate perception of the nature of engineering. Survey data indicate that the public associates engineers with economic growth and defense, but less so with improving health, the quality of life, and the environment.
The third challenge for engineering education is to retain those students who are initially attracted to engineering. Attrition is substantial in engineering, particularly in the first year of college. About 60 percent of students who enter engineering majors obtain a degree within 6 years. Although this retention rate is comparable to some other fields, it is especially critical for engineering to retain the pool of entering students.
How should we respond to these challenges? Unfortunately, there is no silver bullet, but we (educators and engineers) can do a better job. Let's begin with globalization. Here, the genie is out of the bottle and there's no way we're getting it back in. Instead we have to better prepare our students and future engineers to innovate and compete in a global environment. This includes an appreciation that the US is no longer at the center of the universe, we are just one of many. Innovation has always been the hallmark of US engineers and we should strive to continue that tradition. This is a challenge given the shrinking pipeline of US engineering students. Addressing two and three above - filling the pipeline - is an important first step in making our engineers more innovative and thus more competitive.
Now on to two. At conferences, engineers always opine over the fact that we don't have a TV show focused on engineering - a MacGyver. Consider, for example, the huge spike in enrollments that our Criminal Justice programs are seeing. Some of this has to be attributable to the interest and excitement generated by the proliferation of CSI and CSI-like shows. Unfortunately, there's not much we can do here. What we can do is be more visible - as educators and engineers - in our communities. At PTA and town hall meetings, at boys and girls clubs, at elementary, middle and high schools, even at professional organization and chamber of commerce meetings. We have to make opportunities to "educate" the public - students, teacher, parents, counselors, and business-people. They need to know what an engineer is, what an engineer does, and more importantly what it takes to become and be an engineer.
Number three may be the most challenging. We can't make engineering "easier" or less demanding, it is what it is. Instead, we have to do a better job of preparing our students to study engineering. Addressing number two helps, but we need to help our K-12 teachers do a better job of preparing our students. Project Lead the Way endeavors to do just that. I'm not aware of any data suggesting that PLTW has had any succes at increasing college engineering enrollments, but this is not something that is going be apparent in the short-term. Some schools are trying out summer math prep camps, and building strong support services for engineering students. I think it's important look at what people are trying and build on those models that work. We also need to be open to new ideas, such as counseling some students from engineering into careers as technician and technologists. Another idea is to build a strong pre-engineering programs in our schools and use these to fill the engineering pipeline - it seems to work for the nursing programs at our schools. Lastly, we have to be willing to roll up our sleeves, get out there to recruit new students, connect better with current students and - I think most importantly - open our minds to new approaches to teaching and learning.