Iowa City Press-Citizen: Engineering College Enrollment Booming

Saturday, April 5, 2014

By Sara Agnew
Iowa City Press-Citizen

 

Kevin Dubbins was the kid who always took things apart. He couldn’t help himself.

If he found something around the house that was broken, say a TV or boom box, he tried to fix it. If he couldn’t make the repairs, he’d repurpose the parts for something else. Dubbins once dismantled a burned-out microwave for the sheer joy of seeing it in pieces.

In high school, he discovered engineering classes and suddenly, all those years of taking things apart came together.

“I’ve always enjoyed building things and solving problems,” Dubbins said.

In May, Dubbins, 21, of Aurora, Ill., will graduate from the University of Iowa’s College of Engineering with a degree in mechanical engineering — and a job as an associate in the mechanical engineering department at Union Pacific in De Soto, Mo., awaits. His starting salary: well over $60,000.

The best part is Dubbins isn’t alone.

In the past 10 years, UI’s College of Engineering has grown 70 percent — 30 percent in the past four years alone. Of those graduating, 98 percent leave school with jobs that have a median starting salary of more than $60,000.

Even when the economy tanked in 2008, UI engineering students still graduated with well-paying jobs already lined up. And the demand for engineers of all kinds continues to grow.

“Certainly there is interest in engineering because of the tremendous opportunity for a career that an engineering education provides,” said Alec Scranton, dean of UI’s College of Engineering. “It’s certainly related to (Gov. Terry Branstad’s) STEM initiative to encourage middle school and high school students to consider careers in STEM fields.”

But faculty and students at the college say it is something more.

“We are different than a lot of other places, certainly the stereotypical engineering school,” said Jane Dorman, director of admissions and first-year student experience at UI’s College of Engineering. “We call it, ‘Engineering and something more.’ UI is a big liberal arts school, and we like to encourage our students to do other things besides engineering.

“They meet other people, enrich their college experience and, ultimately, they are more marketable to employers because they are well-rounded and have very good communications skills,” she said.

Scranton said about 72 percent of Iowans who graduate from the College of Engineering stay in in the state, while about 36 percent of non-residents make Iowa their home. More than 120 UI College of Engineering graduates are presidents, CEOs, founders or owners of Iowa companies. The list includes Kelly Ortberg, president and CEO of Rockwell Collins in Cedar Rapids; Kelly Coffied, president of Cobham Life Support Systems in Davenport; and Isadore “Rocky” Rocklin, founder of Rocklin Manufacturing in Sioux City.

While the engineering college is riding an upswing in enrollment, it also is experiencing some growing pains.

Scranton said the most recent addition to the Seamans Center for the Engineering Arts and Sciences building was about 15 years ago. The Iowa state Board of Regents has approved the development of a conceptual plan for an estimated 65,000-square-foot addition, but another approval is needed before the project moves to the planning stage.

If goes as planned, construction on the new addition is expected to begin in 2016.

Seth Dillard, a postdoctoral research scholar and adjunct faculty instructor in UI’s engineering college, said when he graduated in 2004 with a degree mechanical engineering, there were 35 students in his undergraduate class. By comparison, in 2014-15, the graduating class of mechanical engineers is expected to be more than 100.

Dillard said he believes the state’s STEM initiatives are responsible for much of the growth.

“The push for STEM initiatives has been a significant part of the educational rhetoric for a number of years now,” he said. “I think we’re beginning to see that take hold.”

Kelli Delfosse, director of professional development at UI’s College of Engineering, said a number of UI’s K-12 Outreach Programs are aimed at attracting young women to engineering fields, where women are in high demand by prospective employers.

“Women have higher attention to details,” she said. “Even our retention of women is higher with the college. Women are just as much in demand (as men) and their salaries are just as competitive as the men’s.”

And by all accounts, UI’s efforts to attract women are paying off.

About 24 percent of undergraduate and 26 percent of graduates enrolled in UI’s College of Engineering this spring are women, Dorman said. That’s greater than the national average, which has been hovering at 17 percent until this year when it increased to 18.2 percent.

“One of the things is women students like to know there are going to be other women, but frankly, the guys like it, too, and not only socially,” Dorman said. “Men and women tend to approach problems differently. That’s what engineering is all about, solving problems. You can expand that to other diversities that are available — students from other countries, from the military and those who grew up on farms.

“We embrace the diversity,” she said, “because it will make you a better problem solver and engineer.”

Though the UI engineering college has grown in recent years, it still is relatively small compared to other engineering programs.

In 2013, about 2,000 undergraduate and 332 graduate students were enrolled in six departments in UI’s College of Engineering. That same year, Iowa State University’s College of Engineering had about 7,000 undergraduates and 1,100 graduate students enrolled in eight departments.

But it was the smaller size that convinced Yashila Permeswaran to pick UI over ISU.

“I decided on the University of Iowa’s College of Engineering because of how accepting it was,” said the 18-year-old freshman from LeMars. “I liked the smaller size. It didn’t feel so competitive. I felt like I could get to know more of the professors and get more one-on-one attention.”

Plus, Permeswaran could live on a residence hall floor with other female engineering students and be close to her brothers, both of whom are students in the engineering college.

Dorman, who has worked in the college since 1997, said she’s seen numerous families send multiple children through the engineering program over the years.

“People are really happy with their experience here,” she said. “And when they are happy, they tell other people. It is small with a great sense of camaraderie and yet, we are a Big Ten research university.”