Welcome. I am the author of Universal Time, a sci-fi urban comedy;
Beaufort 1849, an historical novel set in antebellum South Carolina;
and Pearl City Control Theory, a comedy of manners set in present-day San Francisco.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Why Aren't More Engineers Graduating From Our Colleges?

The missing engineer?
 There has been handwringing in the media lately about why our colleges and universities are not producing more STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) majors as well as about the dearth of female engineers in Silicon Valley.  Having an engineering degree myself, a husband with an engineering degree, a son who has just completed an engineering degree, a daughter who is considering an engineering degree, a sister who is an engineer, a brother-in-law who is an engineer, friends who teach engineering, and being an advisor to a young woman who is interested in medical school but is not afraid of math or science, the difficulty of attracting and retaining STEM majors has been nagging at me.

First off, not all STEM majors are equally in demand on the job front. Over the years I’ve known many brilliant physicists unable to find a job in their field, and biology majors (the major of choice for pre-meds) currently appear to be in oversupply. What is in demand right now are grads with degrees in computer science, mechanical engineering and electrical engineering. Other forms of engineering also reliably lead to jobs, and math majors report hiring success although their job title  is unlikely to be “mathematician.”

So why don’t more American kids go into engineering if that’s where the jobs are?  In my observation, there are a number of reasons:
1.) Follow the money. Engineering is considered less prestigious than medicine, law, and business, and less likely to lead to a high income, regardless of current starting salaries for engineers. Like it or not, medicine especially has more cachet with top students and their parents which mean talent flows endlessly in that direction.
2.)  Engineering is hard. It’s not just that the material is conceptually difficult. There are many kids who could make it through engineering curriculum that get shunted away because:
a.)  Engineering schools are notorious for much harsher grading than humanities and sciences. (Average grades range from ½ to almost a full letter grade lower.)
b.)  Engineering schools are notorious for their incredibly heavy workloads. Getting a degree in engineering means cramming 5 – 6 years of normal college workload into 4. The result is the average engineer has less free time and less fun than the average humanities major. Engineers will tell you their classes are twice as hard as humanities classes for half the units. In fact, most upper-class engineers regale prospective frosh engineers with horrific stories about their workload and how easy "fuzzies" (non-techies) have it, their tales punctuated by bitter laughter.
c.)  Engineering schools require tortuous engineering breadth courses, mostly because whoever designed the curriculum took them so you should, too. But it's pointless. The amount of knowledge I retained a month after my circuits, material science or aero-astro engineering classes I could’ve picked up from a few hours of watching Discovery Channel. (Oh, the needless suffering. My statics class, on the other hand, was actually interesting, potentially useful, and not too bad.)
d.)  Because of the heavy course load, engineers have to start taking the engineering core courses freshman year and dive heavily into their major sophomore year. While one can decide to major in English or political science spring of sophomore year without problem, beginning engineering spring of sophomore year would make graduating on time nearly impossible.  Leisurely dabbling and taking time to make up one’s mind is not a luxury engineers have.
3.)  Engineering schools at state universities often severely limit the available slots making it both very hard to get in and very hard to switch majors if a kid later decides another form of engineering would suit him/her better.  (In California, for example, many, many qualified kids are turned away from the engineering schools at the UC’s and the Cal Poly’s.)
4.) High GPAs are extremely important in law and medical school admissions.  In addition law and medical school admissions committees seem to place little value on engineering and the analytical thought process it develops.  This results in law and medical schools refusing to cut engineers much GPA slack in their admissions processes. So anyone thinking they might, in the entire course of their life, ever apply to law or medical school takes an enormous risk to major in a field that produces notoriously low GPAs. At Stanford, for example, fully 1/3 of freshmen enter as pre-med (an extraordinary number.) Less than half of these eventually apply to med school. Very few of these pre-meds major in engineering even though the majority could probably do the work, and there is a bioengineering major designed pretty much just for them. Many of those initial pre-meds who later decide med school is not for them might have been very happy with engineering had they not been frightened away from it as frosh pre-meds.
5.)  Math departments have an innate disdain for engineers (practical, grimy brutes uninterested in the beauty of proofs) and don’t go out of their way to teach math in a manner that is helpful for budding engineers. In my day, the rumor was that the math faculty drew straws to see who got stuck teaching freshman calculus. In any event it was usually the lowest status, most heavily-accented adjunct (if not visiting) professor who taught calculus to engineers, not always a recipe for success.
6.)  The number of units required for an engineering degree makes it very difficult (though not absolutely impossible) to double major or study overseas. It also leaves much less room in the schedule for just sheer academic fun and exploration, supposedly part of what college is all about.

All these factors mean that unless a kid is willing to work very hard and knows with certainty at age 18 that he/she wants to be an engineer and nothing else, he/she is likely to shy away from engineering and never know if it might be interesting, less hard than they thought, lead to interesting work, etc.

This is not to say that the humanities have no value! I was an English major undergrad—I love literature and history! I certainly understand that not everyone is cut out for engineering and that the world would be a dull place indeed if it were only made up of engineers (or only pre-meds, or only art history majors, or only economists . . . ) But it seems counterproductive to make engineering quite so miserable, quite so risky (for anybody needing a high GPA for grad school) and require quite so many sacrifices on the part of the average 18 year old. 

In addition, if engineers are in demand and important to a state’s economy, why doesn’t that state’s universities accept more kids into their engineering programs? It may cost more, yes, but to skimp on engineers when kids want to study the subject and employers need the grads for their companies to thrive seems insane or at least economically demented.

Perhaps engineering should be a 5 year program rather than cram so much into just 4 years. Perhaps some of the more nonsensical breadth requirements could be reduced. Perhaps law and medical schools could be convinced to give engineering GPAs a substantial bump when considering them against bio or history majors. It just seems to me that a lot of smart, talented kids who could be quite successful as engineers are kept away from the field needlessly.

photo credit:  Peter Stamats