Educating the 21st century engineer

Nov 30, 2007

Dr. Jim Gover of Kettering University and Dr. Paul Huray of the University of South Carolina author an e-book that provides plans for re-establishing the U.S. as the leading engineering innovator, which could ultimately improve the country's economic outlook.

The questions abound.

How many manufacturing jobs will remain in the U.S. as China continues to overtake the U.S. as the global leader in manufacturing? How can the U.S. stem the decreasing enrollment of highly innovative U.S. students in engineering-related disciplines? What exactly can the U.S. do to maintain its lead as an innovator and engineering leader in today’s global economy?

Unfortunately, the answers are as murky as a river polluted by years of industrial waste. But at least one Kettering faculty member and his colleague have dove beneath the surface of these questions and provided an antidote to help re-invigorate the U.S. as an engineering innovator and increase interest among innovative students to study engineering.

Dr. James Gover, professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE) and fellow of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), along with colleague Dr. Paul Huray of the University of South Carolina, recently authored an e-book published by the IEEE titled “Educating 21st Century Engineers,” which offers explicit examples of why the U.S. is being overtaken in the innovation game and how we can systematically address this problem and maintain our prominence in the global economy as the world’s innovator.

The authors note in their foreword that due to the importance of engineering on economic growth and the pressures of the global economy, “it is time for the federal government to declare engineering a public good. And it is time for U.S. corporations to fill a major role in engineering education.”

Gover and Huray note that some of the most critical issues regarding the lack of innovation from U.S. firms are clearly rooted in corporate engineering hiring strategies, which the authors describe as seriously flawed. Because there is a decrease in the number of U.S. citizens studying engineering, companies have lobbied Congress to increase the number of H-1b work visas from 65,000 a year to 180,000. Furthermore, since many American students cannot afford the cost of an engineering education, foreign students fill classroom seats and U.S. taxpayers foot the bill. With American firms hiring foreign engineers at an increasing rate, these professionals often gain the necessary experience in engineering they need, then leave for their home countries, where they can earn higher incomes when measured in terms of purchasing power. In fact, much of the economic boom in India is due in to successful nationals who immigrated to the U.S. in the 1960s and 1970s, then returned to India to help modernize the country. The result is a loss of experienced engineers for companies in the U.S. Added to this is the issue of outsourcing, which negatively impacts a company’s R & D development: many overseas corporate partners of American companies often develop knock-off products and sell them to niche markets at low costs, a practice that violates patent protection laws but which is difficult for U.S. firms and the federal government to police.

Gover and Huray also explain in their book that economists link economic growth to increases in labor productivity, which is primarily driven by technology innovation. Unfortunately, the U.S., according to university presidents and industry executives from prestigious companies, have claimed for years now that there is a shortage of engineers graduating from American colleges and universities. However, a closer look at this situation gets to the real heart of the matter: there is a shortage of highly innovative U.S. born engineering graduates ready to enter the work force immediately and make innovative contributions. Simply put, high school students are not enrolling in engineering or science-related fields and many critics suggest that this is because U.S. K-12 math and science education is weak. But Gover and Huray indicate that an increase in engineering enrollment may not result from improved K-12 math and science education.

This, then, leads to some specific reasons Gover and Huray feel that enrollment in engineering continues to decline. Chief among these reasons are the following:

  • Some U.S. firms spend more on lawyers or MBAs than on research and development: students could interpret this data to mean there are more career opportunities in law and business than in science and engineering.
  • Engineering employment doesn’t provide the stability that it did when engineering enrollments were increasing: as news about the problems the Big Three continue to experience spreads—loss of market share, which results in blue and white collar job cuts—kids whose parents are engineers are often privy to the economic challenges.
  • Most corporate human resources departments do not understand that a degree in engineering provides graduates a logical approach that is applicable to problems students have yet to encounter. Corporate HR departments often treat engineering education similar to training programs for routine tasks. As a result, companies often turn away qualified engineers because their work experience does not exactly fit the job the company is seeking to fill.
  • Undergraduate engineering education is costly and the expense continues to increase. State funded schools typically charge on average roughly $15,000 or more for in-state tuition for undergraduate engineering education. The cost of tuition for other high profile institutions can cost anywhere from $25,000 to $50,000 a year. As a result, more and more engineering students often graduate with student loan debts exceeding $40,000.

Historically, most of the nation’s engineers came from veterans and students from farming families. Veterans learned about technological advances through their military training and experiences, and as the farming industry began to dwindle, students from farming environments turned to engineering. For veterans, they often received tuition support through the GI Program. The number of students from farming environments has diminished due to the mechanization of agriculture. And since American corporations have limited experience in working with cooperative education students from U.S. colleges, U.S. industry continues to miss out on opportunities to grow their own engineers who could develop new innovations.

Additionally, females and minorities represent a small portion of engineering professionals, the authors report, even though there have been considerable efforts on the part of institutions and organizations to increase interest among these people.

So how does the U.S. combat the lack of interest in engineering among today’s high school students and thereby encourage a new generation of engineering leaders and innovators?

The authors feel that cooperative education jobs with corporations could in many ways eradicate the issues noted above. Specifically, if companies were to pay the college tuition of these students, four major effects would result:

  1. undergraduate enrollment of U.S. born students would increase;
  1. engineering graduate school enrollment would increase;
  1. more universities would create cooperative education programs for undergraduate and graduate levels; and
  1. higher quality, innovative students would be interested in these programs and perhaps choose engineering and the sciences as possible career fields.

But for these results to occur, two critically important breakthroughs are necessary, Gover and Huray explain in their book. First, there needs to be a national recognition of engineering as a public good, since technology engineering does indeed drive economic growth. Second, with engineering deemed a public good, tax incentives must be available to U.S. firms to hire undergraduate and graduate co-op engineering students and pay for their tuition.

The authors also stress that for this to work, the passing of legislation permitting a company to pay for co-op student tuition, pay students an appropriate salary and deduct the full tuition cost from the company’s federal tax payments, are necessary.

And the benefit? Gover and Huray state that if this legislation is indeed passed and fails to attract more students to engineering education, no reduction in federal revenues will occur. And if it is successful and significantly more students do indeed enroll in engineering-related college programs, the revenue that accrues from their salaries and innovations should compensate for reducing a corporation’s federal tax revenues. This clearly represents a win-win situation no matter how one looks at it.

The e-book, titled “Educating 21st Century Engineers,” is available through the Institute of Electronics and Electrical Engineers by visiting http://www.ieeeusa.org/communications/ebooks/default.asp. Dr. Gover will also present a paper on this book at the November 2007 IEEE conference in Munich, Germany, titled “Meeting the Growing Demand for Engineers and Their Educators 2010-2020.”

Written by Gary J. Erwin
810-762-9538
gerwin@kettering.edu