Countering Trend, Engineering Education from the Ground Up

9-Apr-2004 4:30 PM EDT

Purdue University

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Newswise — Purdue University is taking steps to stem the decline in high school students' interest in careers in engineering.

The university's Board of Trustees voted today (Friday, 4/9) to create a new Department of Engineering Education to increase younger students' interest in engineering while researching ways students learn engineering concepts. The department is the first of its kind in the nation, but other universities across the nation also are studying the problem.

The initiative is aimed not only at increasing student interest but also at responding to the projected demand for more engineering professionals. One recent study showed that the number of high school seniors planning on careers in engineering has dropped more than 35 percent in the past 10 years. At the same time, the U.S. Bureau of Labor estimates that the number of jobs to be filled in engineering and science will grow at more than three times the rate of other professions.

"There is a dramatic need for engineers who will be able to lead this country and the world into new technologies and innovations," said Purdue Provost Sally Mason. "As emerging fields such as nanotechnology and biotechnology grow, it will become even more imperative for universities like Purdue to understand how best to educate the new generations of engineers, both on our campus and before they enter Purdue."

The new department will combine Purdue's existing freshman engineering and interdisciplinary engineering programs. In the future, it plans to offer graduate degrees for students studying the science of learning and other topics in engineering education. There also are plans to add an engineering teaching certification program for high school teachers and to pursue accredited undergraduate degrees in engineering education and interdisciplinary engineering.

Engineering education reforms have not only been called for by engineers at Purdue, but also by leaders in the field from around the country. Linda P.B. Katehi, Purdue's John A. Edwardson Dean of Engineering, said the American Society for Engineering Education, the National Research Council, the National Academy of Engineering and other leading professional organizations have all supported the need for a systematic reform in engineering education.

Today, the National Science Foundation's support for education reform with an emphasis on engineering exceeds $200 million per year, she said.

"There is a great need for engineering education reform, and many important, prestigious organizations are beginning to address that need," Katehi said. "While Purdue is the first university in the country to dedicate an academic department to engineering education, others, including Virginia Polytechnic Institute, are also planning similar departments. That kind of commitment across the discipline will be needed before real reform can become a reality."

Kamyar Haghighi, head of the new department and a professor of agricultural and biological engineering, said he hopes the department also can play a role in better preparing domestic students entering college for the rigors of an engineering curriculum and in attracting a more diverse group of students into the field.

While most potential engineering students have taken high-level math and science in high school, one recent study states that the number of those students graduating in the top quarter of their high school class has decreased from 63.1 percent to 55.6 percent since 1991. Twenty-four percent of those students reported needing additional help in math, and more than 47 percent said they need help in study skills to prepare for a rigorous engineering curriculum.

Haghighi said research also shows that women and minorities are vastly underrepresented in many math- and science-based fields, including engineering. High-school boys and girls took upper-level math and science courses at about the same rates, but in 1999 women represented only 20 percent of the total enrollment in American engineering programs.

The percentage of African-American, Hispanic and Native American high school seniors planning to enter engineering rose to 22 percent, but their numbers stayed constant and the increasing percentage is primarily because the numbers of white students had decreased. The number of minority students entering the field has stayed constant, and Haghighi said it is important to open the field to both more women and minorities, particularly as the minority population grows in coming years.

"Engineering is one of the few careers that students coming out high school have likely had no contact with, whether in school, on television or through their own experiences," Haghighi said. "If we are going to continue to produce the world's best engineers, it is imperative to strengthen the pipeline to K-12 education. Part of that is to perform research that will help us understand how best to teach engineering concepts to a wider variety of students, increasing the pool of students who will be both prepared for, and interested in, a career in the field."

Purdue's Department of Engineering Education will initially focus on research and outreach programs, but officials plan to have a program for educating certified high school teachers with an emphasis in engineering by 2006. Besides teaching high school engineering courses, teachers would be qualified to teach mathematics, physics and other sciences and have the knowledge to bring engineering concepts into the classroom.

Undergraduate students working toward teacher certification would work closely with Purdue's School of Education, taking some of the schools' teacher preparation courses. Graduate students studying engineering education also will work closely with education faculty, and Haghighi said future joint appointments between the two schools were a possibility.

Six states - Massachusetts, Arkansas, New Hampshire, Florida, Texas and Maryland - have mandated engineering coursework in high schools, and Katehi said she anticipates the trend to grow in other states in the coming years. Several universities have begun centers to focus on research in engineering education, but none elevate the field to the same level as traditional engineering disciplines, like civil or electrical engineering, Haghighi said.

Katehi said, "For us truly to address the needs of the field and the country, there must be a change in the way we approach engineering education. Change is under way on a small scale, and it is important for universities like Purdue to lead the change in the way we think about educating engineers through the entire spectrum of education."

The majority of the new department's outreach efforts will focus on professional development for educators and bringing engineering into K-12 schools. Following models used in other disciplines, the department and its faculty will work with classroom teachers to develop curricula to introduce younger students to the higher-level thinking common in the problem-solving and design principles of engineering.

To further expose domestic students to engineering as a career possibility, Haghighi also plans for the department to create programs to complement existing activities that put Purdue engineering students in K-12 classrooms. This will not only allow younger students to understand engineering, but it also can expose girls and minority students to role models in the field, increasing the likelihood they will consider an engineering career, he said.

Haghighi said faculty in the department will focus research on the science of learning, the role of technology in education, assessment of student learning, diversity and learning environments, and other topics leading to the improvement of engineering education.

"If we can find ways to teach a wider variety of students better, we can open the field of engineering to more students beginning at a younger age," he said. "When scientists began to study methods of science education it caused a large culture shift in the field, but now the idea that we wouldn't study science education and train science teachers is unthinkable. We are beginning to see engineering education on that same path."

The board's action establishing the new undergraduate and graduate degree program is subject to approval by the Indiana Commission for Higher Education.

Purdue's College of Engineering is made up of 11 schools and departments: aeronautics and astronautics, agricultural and biological, biomedical, chemical, civil, electrical and computer, engineering education, industrial, materials, mechanical, and nuclear.

The College of Engineering includes more than 6,400 undergraduate students and almost 2,500 graduate students. In its most recent rankings, U.S. News and World Report named Purdue the No. 8 engineering program in the country, and many of Purdue's programs were ranked in the top 10 nationally.

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