Resource Magazine September/October 2012 : Page 21

sities. That is just the reality,” says Jonathan Wickert, Iowa State’s engineering dean. For some, this is an incentive to increase enrollment. “The more students we have, the more money we have,” Bohmann says. Iowa State’s budget system likewise rewards growth. The engineering school’s financial resources have expanded as its enrollment has increased. It is even adding 17 new faculty members this year. In Iowa and some other states, the budget gods have tended to smile on engineering, relatively speaking. While Iowa State’s appropriations have nosedived 25 percent over the past three years, lawmakers found $74 million to fund a new engineering building complex. And although Michigan Tech also plans to add faculty in coming years, Bohmann argues that additional teachers are not necessary nationally to reach Obama’s goal. He estimates the current national BS degree to teacher ratio at around 2.75 percent; an additional 10,000 students could nudge it up to 3.1 percent, an average he calls “rea-sonable.” While their numbers won’t make a big dent in the national total, engi-neering deans at a number of private universities say they, too, are expand-ing operations. Since elite schools are reluctant to dilute their student bod-ies by adding many more students, this means drawing a bigger propor-tion to engineering. At Harvard, Dean Cherry Murray says her goal is to enroll 15 percent of the Harvard stu-dent body, which would more than double enrollment to around 1,000. Yale graduates around 70 engineers a year, and Dean T. Kyle Vanderlick says, “We could easily grow to 120 or 140, and it would still be an intimate setting.” Columbia graduates around 400 engineering students a year, and Peña-Mora says it could boost that number by around 14 percent. At Princeton, engi-neering enrollment has climbed 20 percent in five years; this year’s freshman class numbers a record 330, outpacing overall student enrollment growth. Princeton’s undergraduate popula-tion, now 5,149, “grew by 10 percent over the last five years,” explains H. Vincent Poor, engineering dean. “It’s not going to grow again.” Retention: “Low-hanging fruit” Attracting, and keeping, a bigger proportion of incoming students requires a reversal of more than two decades’ gradua-tion trends. The high-water mark in engineering education was 1985, when 77,572 undergraduate degrees were awarded, or 7.8 percent of the total number of bachelor’s degrees conferred that year. A lengthy decline followed. While the numbers have ticked upward in recent years, engineering’s share of the total number of degrees awarded has fallen to about 4 percent. Deans at public and private schools agree that better retention would be the quickest, most economical way to increase graduate numbers. Georgia Tech’s Gary May calls it “low-hanging fruit.” A 2007 report in Science found that the average retention rate at U.S. engineering schools was just 56 percent, and at some schools it was as low as 30 percent. Few students drop out because they can’t do the work, Florida’s Abernathy says. “They are just not enamored with the first-year courses.” So the notion is: fix that curricular defect, lose fewer students, and increase graduates. Some deans sound confident this will happen. “There is a revolution going on in engineering teaching,” Harvard’s Murray says, one that should eventually improve retention rates. “It’s one way to address the question of creating more engineering graduates without a huge amount of additional resources.” For example, more schools are embracing active-learning techniques and entrepreneurship, and giving first-and second-year students hands-on projects that can include some engineering design to help keep them interested and staying put. But tighter budgets can ham-string retention efforts. “We have not had the resources to scale up the suc-cessful pilot programs that we believe would have the biggest impact,” says Abernathy. For instance, Florida cut a pilot scheme that placed engineering teaching assistants into freshman chemistry courses to help students see how they would eventually use what they were learning. Moreover, the reality is that, for several years now, many schools have tried hard to improve their retention rates with lit-tle to show for their efforts. In fact, Maryland’s Mote argues that reducing student attrition won’t increase graduation lev-els. Typically, public schools accept fairly large numbers of transfer students from community colleges to replace the freshmen and sophomores who drop out. If retention improves, there will be fewer places for transfer students, he says. “So, the overall numbers would not change much.” Clearly, many engineering deans and educators believe that the Obama administration’s goal is necessary and reach-able. But Mote, for one, hopes that the effort evolves at a leisurely pace. He would prefer to see degree numbers increase by only a few percentage points at a time, to see if the market accepts the new additions. “If we are going to try to do this, I’d do it slowly, in increments.” Given austerity budgets and hard-to-change attrition levels, that may be the only way it’s going to happen. Th o m a s K . G r o s e , based in London, is chief correspondent for Prism , the magazine of the American Society of Engineering Education. This article originally appeared in the February 2012 issue and has been reprinted with permission. © Monika3stepsahead/ RESOURCE September/October 2012 21

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