Perspective: Attracting Students to Engineering
By Dean Joseph Helble
Educators generally believe that the space race set in motion by the Soviet launch of the Sputnik satellite in 1957 and President Kennedy’s 1961 call to land a man on the Moon triggered a surge of interest in technology this country has not seen since. But the data do not support this claim.
According to the Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics, 38,000 students received degrees in engineering or engineering technology in 1960. This number can be considered a pre-Sputnik baseline, since these students had likely already selected their college major by the time the space race began. In 1970 the nation’s graduates — who would have been 7 or 8 when Sputnik was launched and 11 or 12 when President Kennedy declared his goal — included approximately 45,000 engineers. By 1975, there were 47,000. These numbers indicate some growth in engineering enrollments in the 1960s and early 1970s, but hardly the peak that has become commonly accepted lore. Examined on a per capita basis, the lack of significant growth is even more striking: 209 engineering degrees per million U.S. citizens in 1960, 217 in 1970, and 218 in 1975.
Engineering enrollments did spike in this country, but not until a decade after the influence of Sputnik should have faded. In 1980, a time of energy shortages and environmental concerns, the U.S. graduated 303 engineers per million citizens. In 1985, the number was up to 403. It is therefore reasonable to ask whether it was Sputnik that inspired a surge in engineering interest, or rather the desire to address global issues such as energy, the environment, or health care through biotechnology. The numbers suggest the latter.
So where are we now? A two-decade decline in the per capita production of engineers has leveled out — but not reversed — in the past few years. In 2004, the nation produced 266 engineers or engineering technologists per million citizens, 30% fewer than in the mid-1980s. During that period the number of degrees in parks, recreation, and leisure studies per capita increased by nearly 300%. The country now graduates a third as many “leisure” majors as engineers. If we believe that technological advances drive our economic and social well-being and that many of our problems require engineering solutions, this is an alarming trend. We need to find a way to convey the relevance of engineering to prospective students — and the enrollment data of the past 40 years tell us how.
Thayer School is facing this challenge by building graduate research focuses, scholarly work, and innovation in a few key areas of broad service to society. One such area, the intersection between Engineering and Medicine, is the target of current and planned faculty hiring, new programs we are building with Dartmouth Medical School, and growing sponsored research activity. Our students, too, are devising new ways of aiding the world — from the innovative Formula Hybrid competition planned for May 2007, to the Big Green Bus, currently in the planning stages for next summer’s journey, to “Humanitarian Engineering Leadership Projects Worldwide,” a new Thayer School group dedicated to using their engineering skills to help solve basic infrastructure problems in the developing world.
This approach is not another race to the moon. But from the enthusiasm of the students involved in these efforts, I’m convinced it is what is needed to make engineering an attractive option once more.
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