Muscatine, IA, Journal: Rotary Guest-Legos Can Be Building Blocks of Engineering Career

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

By Mike Ferguson
Muscatine Journal


Alec Scranton said he knows at least a few reasons why the University of Iowa’s College of Engineering is preparing for a record enrollment this fall, when 2,000 undergraduates will be enrolled in the program.

Legos and ping-pong balls.

But there’s more to engineering than fun and games. It’s getting those things into younger students’ hands that can help spark an interest in engineering, he told Muscatine’s Rotary Club on Monday.

Scranton, 49, the dean of UI’s College of Engineering and himself an alumnus of the university’s undergraduate engineering program, said one of the reasons so many students are selecting the engineering major is that the university has been reaching out to students as young as elementary age with fun programs, including the FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Lego League.

“It’s especially effective to give (young students) a challenging task,” he said, such as designing a robot built out of Legos that can pick up ping-pong balls. The UI-hosted FIRST Lego League program has grown from two teams to more than 100, he said.

That program and other efforts to engage students in engineering pursuits at a younger age has also helped boost the number of female

engineering students, although at about 25 percent of the total, women are only about halfway toward parity in the university’s engineering program.

Nationally, the average is about 15 percent, he said. At UI, women do outnumber men in one engineering major — the biomedical engineering program.

Scranton has been a member of the UI faculty since 2000 and was named dean in September 2010. He is UI’s first engineering dean to have matriculated through the university’s undergraduate program.

The average starting annual salary for a UI engineering graduate is $60,000, and 96 percent of students are placed in engineering-related positions.

Part of the school’s growth may have to do with free tutoring and “a small college atmosphere,” he said, but another attraction is the opportunity students get to solve real-world problems.

A few years ago, students in the Bridges to Prosperity program used indigenous materials to help design a bridge over a stream in Peru where young children had been drowning trying to cross the stream in spring, when the water was high and swift.

UI engineering students also had a hand in a project closer to home — they helped improve the air-handling capability at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.

Over the past four years, the undergraduate program at UI has grown by 40 percent. The growth is “good for our state, and good for the country,” he said.