The number of American engineers is decreasing significantly, and countries that traditionally have not graduated many engineers in the past, such as India and China, are now drawing significantly ahead of the United States.
The decrease in engineers eventually will have an effect on the economy and quality of life of the United State, according to Jon Jensen, associate dean in the College of Engineering at Marquette University.
"The stats I have heard are that over the next 10 years, we are going to need 100,000 engineers and technicians per year, and we are going to be graduating 60,000 per year, compared with China, which is graduating 400,000 per year," said John Farrow, a professor of mechanical engineering at the Milwaukee School of Engineering (MSOE).
With that crisis in mind, collegiate engineering schools in the Milwaukee area are partnering in a regional effort to create awareness of the engineering profession and to push an interest in math and science at area high school and elementary schools, according to William Gregory, dean of engineering for the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
UWM, MSOE, Marquette University, MSOE, Milwaukee Area Technical College (MATC) and Waukesha County Technical College (WCTC) are working together to combat the disinterest in engineering as an undergraduate major and as a profession.
"It used to be that if you like math and science, you should be an engineer, but there is more to it than that," Farrow said. "You have to be good at it and be able to utilize it."
Marquette, UWM, MSOE and others participate in a program called Project Lead The Way. MSOE is the local affiliate college for the national organization, Farrow said.
"Project Lead the Way is a national program that introduces engineering and engineering technology to middle and high schools," Farrow said. "Students see the applications of math and science that they are learning, and it is great for growth."
Local high schools and middle schools interested in participating in Project Lead The Way need faculty members who are willing to teach four introductory courses on engineering, a computer lab and a space for the class, Farrow said. Teachers are trained in summer school sessions held at MSOE for the course, and students have the options of participating in all four courses or taking one or more as an elective.
By the time the students are ready for college, they have basic knowledge of the type of work they will be engaging in, Farrow said.
Project Lead The Way has created more than 1,000 programs in the nation and 65 schools in Wisconsin that are either conducting classes or sending faculty members to the training sessions because of their strong interest, Farrow said.
Why are fewer American students majoring in engineering?
"Everyone is speculating, and I don't know that anyone knows for sure," Jensen said. "There has been a nine-year downturn in interest in science, math and engineering in the country. Some would say kids are shying away from things they perceive to be difficult or that they are taking the easy path because they are not feeling capable or not being aware. It is probably a piece of every one."
Engineers and Scientists of Milwaukee (ESM) is a nonprofit organization that has partnered with the five local engineering schools in a project called sySTEMnow, which is an acronym for Strengthening our Youth in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics Now.
The initiative held a conference in November at Marquette University, and more than 140 people attended from schools and businesses that were interested in taking part in the initiative, said Carla Meyer, executive director of ESM.
ESM plans to establish a master database for engineering-related programs and activities in the community, Meyer said. Families, businesses and schools eventually will be able to access the database to search for volunteers for speaking events in front of groups or at career fairs, to be involved in after-school activities or to be a contact to those interested in the engineering field.
"ESM focuses a lot of time, money and effort because there is a need for us to focus on encouraging students to pursue the STEM fields and to make sure that they have opportunities while they are in middle school and high school, so when they go to college, they have a feel for what career paths they want to take," Meyer said.
"We are lagging globally in engineering and science altogether," Jensen said. "Countries we used to out-produce in engineering and science, like China, are now out-producing us. If you think about it, that is going to evoke a change in our quality of life or pose some severe problems if we no longer lead in those areas. We need more engineers and scientists."
Opportunities await female engineers
Mentors are needed to close the gender gap
By Elizabeth Geldermann, of SBT
The shortage of engineers in the United States is made even worse by a blatant dearth of women in the field.
A Science and Engineering Indicators Report issued by the National Science Foundation stated that, in 1999, 1.2 million engineers in the labor force were male, and only 133,000 were female.
Currently, 19 percent of the undergraduate population at the Milwaukee School of Engineering (MSOE) is female, and 21 percent of the graduate program population is female, MSOE spokeswoman Kathleen McCann said.
The Marquette University undergraduate engineering program has a similar gender ratio, said Jon Jensen, associate dean in Marquette's College of Engineering.
The reasons for the stark lack of females in engineering are many and include a general lack of interest in math and science by women, a lack of knowledge prior to college about engineering career opportunities and intimidation from both the classes and the male-to-female ratio, according to officials at local universities.
In tune with a national effort, local colleges, organizations and grade school systems have launched a regional wide initiative to interest and encourage female students before college, during college and after graduation in engineering careers.
Project Lead The Way, a national organization that partners colleges with school districts to establish engineering courses in middle schools and high schools, has a special focus on recruiting young women.
Once women are enrolled at MSOE, the school offers a Women's Connections program that brings together female students to talk, eat and participate in activities, said Mary Jo Wellenstein, assistant director of counseling and coordinator for the program.
"We have really strong women students here, and with Women's Connections, students are able to talk to someone else that has been one of the few female students in the class too, and they can talk about what they have done to get used to it," Wellenstein said. "Research shows that female students tend to leave a major if they feel they get what they consider a poor grade. Participants in Women's Connections are there to say, 'Stay with it. Don't take that grade too seriously and don't take it too seriously if someone makes a comment.'"
The Women's Transportation Seminar (WTS) is a national organization that focuses on the career advancement of women in all aspects of the transportation industry, said Caron Kloser, a past president of the organization and a senior transportation planner and director of urban design and planning for HNTB Cos.
Lisa Abraham, a senior civil engineering student at Marquette University who is a cooperative student and employee of HNTB, recently received a WTS scholarship, Kloser said.
Abraham plans to continue to graduate school at the University of Pittsburgh to study structural engineering with a focus on bridge design.
"A lot of people are not introduced to the applications of math and science and how it works in the world, and there needs to be a push for it, because besides being a math or science major, engineering is the most practical option for someone interested (in math and science)," Abraham said.
Abraham decided to major in engineering after she took a personality test that suggested engineering as a career choice and after her parents and guidance counselor encouraged it.
"I was always encouraged," Abraham said. "I started advanced math classes in third grade, and when I got to high school, I started math at the junior level. I have always had doors opened for me and people were excited to open the doors."
Kelly Zylstra, a project manager for the water supply, treatment and storage section of Crispell-Snyder Inc. of Lake Geneva, recently received the Wisconsin 2004 Young Engineer of Year Award from the Engineers and Scientists of Milwaukee (ESM).
When Zylstra began working for Crispell-Snyder 13 years ago, she was the only female engineer in the firm.
Zylstra said she has had some hard times as a woman in a field that was traditionally a man's world. However, as people see her work and her expertise, they soften and forget about the gender issues, she said.
"I have had some village board members specifically bring up to my boss that they preferred a male engineer," Zylstra said. "I think this is one of the things that we need to prepare our young female engineers for. I think it is necessary."
An interest in math, science, technology and engineering should be encouraged in both boys and girls, Zylstra said, by making science and math fun for children.
The key to keeping students interested in such subjects is to find the right mentors to help them enter and succeed in the field, Kloser said.
"It is important that we mentor (students) so they want to stay in the field and see what they can do and come to enjoy what they have chosen as a profession," Zylstra said. "The support of teachers and parents is key and is what will make the difference."
April 1, 2005, Small Business Times, Milwaukee, WI