Re-Thinking Engineering

2007 IEEE president Leah Jamieson tackles the issue of low student enrollment in engineering

8 June 2009

A version of this article originally appeared in Woman Engineer magazine (June 2009, Equal Opportunity Publications).

Some 200 kilometers south of his parent’s farm in South Africa’s Limpopo Province, Hendrikwillem van der Walt ponders his future as an engineer, and why he feels so alone. Van der Walt, 23, has gone to great lengths to pursue his calling. He left his parents and the tiny town of Vaalwater at the age of 14, attending the Afrikaans Boys High School in Pretoria for five years, boarding in the school’s hostel. He returned to Vaalwater for a year to work on the farm, then left again, this time for the University of Pretoria, to begin his formal engineering studies. Van der Walt has only 3 percent of hearing in both ears. He gets by with the help of a Phonak hearing aid in one ear and a cochlear implant in the other, which underscores just how much engineering means to him.

“To catch up and compete in a normal hearing world,” he says, “I have had to work very hard from the beginning of my life.”

Van der Walt feels alone for a good reason. From China to Africa to Europe to the Americas, fewer students are going into the field of engineering. For example, the number of engineering specialties in Chinese universities fell by more than half from 1997 to 2006, according to the Chinese Ministry of Education. In the United States, while university enrollments overall are at all-time highs, the number of students in engineering programs hasn’t risen appreciably in 25 years. And in the United Kingdom, while the percentage of 18-year-olds studying at universities has nearly doubled since 2001, the percentage of students enrolled in engineering programs has fallen 17 percent, according to a British government review.

What’s at stake if the number of qualified engineers fails to grow? The world faces an absence of innovations in health care, alternative energy, communications, and environmental systems. If technology has a humanitarian application in any field, you can bet an engineer is behind it.

Luckily, van der Walt’s story offers solutions to the engineers’ attrition problem.

“One day, at the age of 9, I illustrated one of my inventions to my parents, and my mother remarked that I should consider engineering as a career. She told me that engineers invent new things,” he says. “That was very much to my liking, and it stayed in the back of my head.” Some years later, he chose to study electronic engineering, lured by the glow of electronics. Eventually he switched to industrial engineering, a field where engineers improve processes, products, and productivity by focusing on human interaction with the environment and technology. “Studying electronics, I really missed the human factor,” he says.

Youths’ expectations of their careers have shifted seismically in favor of fields that stress creativity and humanitarian concerns. Engineering is perceived as cold and sterile, with too great a focus on mastering formidable mathematics and not enough on how engineers apply their skills and creativity to solve real-world problems, according to many recent reports about the profession.

“There are many other careers that do not need such a high level of mathematics as engineering does,” van der Walt says, adding, “My friends in their third and even final year in electronic engineering usually complain of not knowing how to apply their skills practically, and what to expect in actual practice.”

Engineering educators have a role to play in changing that perception. For one thing, they can foster innovation and connect engineering to the world, as opposed to focusing on the more classic classroom-only, fundamentals-based curriculum. They can center engineering education around internships, co-op programs, international study, entrepreneurship, and service in local communities and developing countries—all first-hand experiences that demonstrate engineers can make a world of difference.

At Purdue University, in West Lafayette, Ind., where I am dean of the College of Engineering, the National Academy of Engineering recently recognized the EPICS (Engineering Projects in Community Service) program with its Gordon Prize for innovation in engineering and technology education. More than 3000 Purdue students have participated in teams devoted to solving engineering problems broached by a community service or education organization in a multiyear partnership. EPICS programs have been created at 18 additional universities around the world and at more than 30 high schools in the United States.

To some degree, you could argue that the shortage of engineers results from a communication problem. Why, in a 2005 Shanghai Public Science Literacy survey, did only 21 percent of respondents hold engineers in high regard, while 58 percent gave that appellation to scientists, 41 percent to doctors, and 23 percent to teachers? And why do only 30 percent of Americans hold engineers in very high regard, according to a 2007 Harris poll measuring public perception of 23 professions and occupations? Engineers placed behind firefighters, doctors, nurses, scientists, teachers, military officers, police officers, priests, and farmers.

In any country, engineers have something in common with these other groups: They benefit humanity. It is the engineer who, for example, brings electricity and clean water to developing countries; who builds the bridges, ships, and planes that link communities and foster economic development; who uses robotics to help people with disabilities; and who advances telemedicine, integrated health-care systems, and next-generation communications for the betterment of humankind.

That powerful message is one that the engineering community needs to share with students, parents, counselors, and teachers if it wants to build prestige and invigorate the profession with new blood and fresh ideas. A 2008 (U.S.) National Academy of Engineering study found students responded more favorably to the idea of engineering as a “difference maker” in the world than as a field whose main attraction is to offer a challenging environment for their math and science skills. If we can continue to broadcast the world-changing applications and practical uses of engineering loud enough, the message will resonate.

At IEEE, we have a number of programs for getting the message out. For example, the TryEngineering Web site, which is co-supported by IBM, focuses on students ages 8 to 18. It offers information on engineering lifestyles and experiences, and it acts as a clearinghouse of information on internships and university programs. The Web site’s interactive nature enables users to play games and ask experts questions. It is intended to engage students on their terms, in their comfort zone.

Meanwhile, the Teacher In-Service Program helps IEEE volunteers train preuniversity teachers to teach engineering concepts.

The “difference maker” concept is important to students such as Hendrikwillem van der Walt, as well as the local communities and countries in which they live and will someday work. When van der Walt contemplates the future, he sees himself in a challenging corporate setting. “Major and well-established companies with an unnecessary waste of resources and high productivity per capita draw my attention,” he says. Eventually, he adds, he would like to enhance South Africa’s overall productivity and performance.

Practicing engineers and university instructors “should really try to make the possibilities in engineering more attractive, and express how necessary engineers are to a country’s development,” he says.

In both industry and academia, the gauntlet has been thrown down. Are we in the engineering profession willing and able to not only talk about how engineers make a difference in the world, but also to make it a reality: to create opportunities to make the kind of difference that will convince students such as van der Walt that engineering is the ultimate career?

True, that would be a departure for industry, which generally tends to deploy hierarchical structures in which entry-level personnel perform tasks that are often more detailed than creative. That will have to change if engineers want the Hendrikwillem van der Walts of the world to become engineers.

The 2007 IEEE President, Jamieson is the John A. Edwardson Dean of the College of Engineering at Purdue.

Learn More