Daily Iowan: "Sustainability" is the Word

Monday, April 13, 2009

By Megan Dial
Daily Iowan

The future of engineering is changing directions, and the interests of UI students are expanding to encompass environmental awareness.

Dean of the College of Engineering P. Barry Butler said renewable energy is taking off in the field, and the UI is offering more environmental courses as funding becomes available.

“I’m teaching a course on wind energy — partly because of the demand. Students want it. And partly because in the state of Iowa we have more wind farms. They are wanting more students who are educated,” he said. “When a field starts emerging as more popular, all of those pieces grow together — the job market and the student interest.”

Keri Hornbuckle, a UI engineering professor and the head of the civil and environmental engineering department, said she has seen an increased interest in sustainability.

“The stimulus package definitely has big components,” she said. “Many students are seeing that will play out in many civil-engineering projects.”

Though, consulting firms haven’t been hiring as much as in the past since the lending market has slowed down, Hornbuckle said.

“The job opportunities are somewhat less,” she said, but it’s still not as bad for engineers as other professionals.

UI civil-engineering student Kyle Crowley is one student who plans to stay out of the engineering job market longer by going to law school. He wants to eventually be an environmental lawyer.

“I figure the longer I stay out of the job world, the longer I won’t have to worry about it,” the UI junior said.

UI junior Ryan Feld also hopes to go to graduate school before trying to get a job.

“They tell us that we should be fine with the economy, but yeah, I’m a bit worried,” he said.

Butler said the number of students going on to some type of post-baccalaureate education, such as Crowley and Feld, is increasing.

“It’s good because those students, they’re continuing to build up their résumés, build up their educational portfolio, and so when they do get into the job market, they have a lot more to offer,” he said.

But students are often tempted by the prospect of large salaries after completing a four-year program, Butler said.

“It’s a tough decision,” he said. “In some ways, that kind of corrects itself during times like this.”

Still, Butler said he is optimistic about the future for engineering.

“It’s a little bit of ‘wait and see.’ My sense is things will start turning around here pretty soon,” he said. “I’ve told our students to just be a little extra aggressive in going out and trying to find jobs.”

Butler said a huge benefit for the field of engineering is its broad range of possible careers — but that type of breadth requires more diverse schooling.

“Companies are very interested in people who can work at the boundary between the different engineering fields,” he said.

Butler said faculty members are also beginning to work on the edges of other specialties — engineering and medicine are two areas more closely related now.

“We’re looking at people who have an interface between a couple of different disciplines,” he said. “Right now in our college, probably 15 percent hold a joint appointment with another college.”

Crowley said he knows engineering is rapidly modifying.

“Every day, it changes,” he said. “You don’t stop school.”