Iowa City Press Citizen: Hoping to Inspire Future Engineers

Sunday, November 25, 2007

If grade-school children learn about careers in math, science and technology, they are more likely to step up into those professions later on, local officials said, and help the country fill positions in high-demand areas.

P. Barry Butler, University of Iowa College of Engineering dean, said he thinks one of the reasons nationwide enrollments in engineering majors is low is simply because children don't understand how the math and science classes they take apply to engineering.

"It might be a lack of knowledge about what it really means and the career opportunities that are there," he said.

According to a study by the released last year, fewer than one-third of U.S. fourth- and eighth-graders performed at or above a proficient level in mathematics; only 15 percent of all U.S. undergraduates receive their degrees in natural science or engineering. In China, the figure is 50 percent and in Singapore, it's 67 percent. The United States is a net importer of high-technology products, and in 2004, China overtook the United States to become the leading exporter of information technology products.

Until four years ago, growth in the number of students enrolling as engineering majors at UI had been nonexistent, Butler said. In recent years, however, that has changed. Last year was the highest freshman engineering enrollment in university history at 315.

"The growth is there; it's slow, but at least for us, it's looking good," he said. "Nationwide, it's been kind of flat."

A combination of state and local programs could be key, Butler said, along with increased recruitment and outreach efforts by employers.

David Gosch, spokesman of Cedar Rapids-based engineering company Rockwell Collins, said the company has stepped up its community outreach to educate children about professional opportunities in science and technology.

"We want to get them excited about science and mathematics and show them how that equates to the world in a fun challenge," he said.

Some programs include sponsoring robotics challenges between area high schools and "Lego League," a grade school team challenge to operate a robot made of Legos. Gosch said "Lego League" was started five years ago with four teams, and now there are 46.

Other grade-school programs that operate in the area include New York-based nonprofit Project Lead the Way, a program to help junior high and high school students get access to pre-engineering courses. The University of Iowa, West High and City High have signed on in the past two years.

Another program is the Corridor STEM Initiative, a partnership between the Iowa City area and Cedar Rapids chambers of commerce, the University of Iowa, a number of school districts and Rockwell Collins.

Gosch said STEM stands for science, technology, engineering and math. He said the new, state-funded initiative provides after-school support education in those areas.

Butler said high school graduates who choose engineering majors should have promising futures ahead of them. Recruitment efforts at UI remain strong, he said, and his office gets a few calls a week from employers who want to be represented at the university's engineering career fair.

"We're getting a lot of phone calls from companies that haven't interviewed in the past," he said.

Not only that, but Butler said the starting wages for some specialties, such as chemical engineering, are approaching $60,000.

"By and large, the demand is extremely high," he said.


Article by Kathryn Fiegen, Iowa City Press Citizen