Embracing Growth in Engineering Education
To meet the demands of a growing economy in Texas, educators in the STEM fields have to innovate how they teach while increasing opportunities for students interested in getting a higher education.
In January, I participated in a game-changing announcement at the State Capitol in Austin. Texas A&M University System Chancellor John Sharp described to a packed room of state legislators, media, industry leaders and higher education enthusiasts an ambitious initiative entitled “25 by 25.” The initiative seeks to increase access to engineering education at Texas A&M University in College Station by expanding the enrollment of engineering students to 25,000 by 2025. Our challenge: aggressive enrollment growth using innovative engineering education methods while maintaining our status as a top-ranked research program.
The idea of doubling engineering enrollment over a 12-year period is considered radical in an era when most universities are limiting or resisting growth. Pursuing growth of this magnitude while enhancing quality and keeping a watchful eye on costs? Frankly, we may be the first to take on such a challenge.
As a land-grant institution with a history of providing access to education for the public, Texas A&M should encourage and support more students who might pursue degrees crucial to the economic prosperity of the state and nation. The need is clear. The President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology’s report, Engage to Excel: Producing One Million Additional College Graduates with Degrees in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics, calls for an increase in STEM graduates by one million during the next 10 years (STEM is the acronym given to the educational fields of study for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics). Without this investment in our future workforce, our country will not retain its historical preeminence in science and technology.
This plea for more STEM degrees is consistent with predictions in the National Academy of Engineering report, Rising Above the Gathering Storm. Not only will growth in our economy require more employees trained in engineering, but we are facing the graying of our technical workforce. Industry in the U.S.—including energy, infrastructure, information technology and national security—is facing a wave of retirements, and many companies report difficulty in finding qualified U.S. citizens to fill critical engineering and technology positions.
The Texas Workforce Commission has projected that the demand for engineers entering the workforce will increase significantly by 2018. At current graduation rates statewide, we are not producing the number of engineers needed to replace those who retire—and meet the increased demand due to economic growth. To exacerbate the shortage, engineering students don’t always go on to work in technical fields. Our graduates pursue careers in medicine, law and business, as well as the traditional engineering profession.
Annually, the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education predicts that the number of students graduating high school in Texas is expected to increase by more than 80,000 in 2025. The good news is that we will have more high school graduates ready to pursue engineering degrees; but will there be a place for these students in our state institutions? At Texas A&M, prior to the 25 by 25 initiative, the answer to that question was uncertain.
Last year, more than 10,000 high school seniors applied for the 1,600 undergraduate enrollment slots in engineering available at Texas A&M. Of those applicants who were turned away, many had the same academic profile as those who were admitted, but they applied after our programs were full.
Failing to gain admission to Texas A&M, one of the top in-state universities, these outstanding students often attended top-tier state institutions outside the state. This surplus of smart, capable and qualified students is so attractive that public institutions outside of our state have established recruitment programs right here in Texas. Students who attend state universities outside the state often choose to accept permanent employment elsewhere, creating a “brain drain” from Texas.
The 25 by 25 initiative is not—and cannot be—just about increasing enrollment, but also focuses on providing better instruction and learning opportunities. Incorporating innovative personalized learning methods into our curriculum will be critical to improving graduation rates for our students. We must address our workforce needs through innovative, sustainable, and systemic change of our educational enterprise, and this cannot be accomplished by doing “business as usual.”
Enrollment growth in the past decade often has been limited because the way we teach engineering students today is not easily scalable for large institutions. We cannot meet the need for enrollment growth by simply increasing the size of our individual classrooms or adding more teaching assistants. We must face this challenge by leveraging technology in new ways to transform the educational experience.
We have witnessed a dramatic shift in the learning style of our students. These “digital natives” are far more comfortable with various technologies because they’ve interacted with them since birth. For example,…. Educational technology can enhance the learning environment and increase accessibility without enlarging class sizes. The creative use of technology will be crucial to transforming the traditional classroom, which will allow us to significantly increase the efficient use of our existing spaces dedicated to learning. Our classrooms are evolving into technology-enabled and shared-use facilities. These unique facilities allow for hands-on, experiential learning at all levels and access to a wide range of multidisciplinary learning opportunities for our students. This new approach to education will produce technology leaders who are uniquely prepared to address tomorrow’s challenges.
Often in engineering higher education, we focus primarily on students after they arrive on campus. To ensure that entering students are ready for the rigors of an engineering education, we must contribute to the preparation of high school graduates and community college transfer students. Engineering programs must become engaged throughout the entire educational pipeline, from pre-kindergarten through high school, to prepare students for success in STEM education. Texas A&M plans to expand and strengthen our partnerships with schools and community colleges through curriculum development, teacher training, and remote learning.
As we move forward with an increase in enrollment, it is critical that we continue to support economic growth through innovation. Texas A&M’s engineering research program develops new technology and applications that result in job creation throughout the state.
The 25 by 25 initiative will significantly enhance our research portfolio through a targeted faculty-hiring program. We will focus on recruiting the best and brightest researchers who have the potential for high-impact discovery, and also invest in “professors of practice” with invaluable industrial experience. By blending faculty with different academic backgrounds and professional experiences, we will create a unique environment for learning and discovery.
We must succeed: Our state is depending on us to create the knowledge economy of the future.
Engineering education is at a critical point. We must meet the needs of our nation and address the challenge to develop a critical workforce in a responsible manner while contributing to economic development through innovation. It is time to thoughtfully embrace this type of enrollment growth and design the engineering education of the future.
Let me be clear: The engineering education we currently deliver at Texas A&M is excellent. However, we certainly can make our program more accessible to bright young people who have the intellect, drive, and desire to impact society as engineers. To do so, we are rethinking every aspect of our educational delivery. Instead of viewing significant increases in student numbers as something to fear, we are finding ways to embrace growth and ensure that we also enhance quality.
I invite all institutions of higher education to examine the issue of access, and rethink how we educate the next generation of innovation leaders. Our future depends upon it.
M. Katherine Banks, Ph.D., P.E. is the Vice Chancellor and Dean of Engineering at The Texas A&M University System. No member of the Texas Monthly editorial staff was involved in its production. For more information about sponsor content, see our FAQ.