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.
Thu March 28, 2013 10:15 pm

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

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