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Engineering suddenly hot at universities

The recession and a desire to make a difference drive more students toengineering programs. But the US still faces a shortage in the profession.

By Richard MertensCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / April 24, 2009

Jonathan Liegois (l.) is a freshman at the Milwaukee School of Engineering in Wisconsin. Here, he works on an assignment in the school's student center.

Richard Mertens

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Milwaukee

Jonathan Liegois once wanted to be a marine biologist. Instead, the college freshman is here at the Milwaukee School of Engineering, his dream of undersea discovery replaced by the more practical ideal of a steady job and good income.

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"The job outlook is high," he says, echoing the sentiments of many classmates. "If you stick to it, it will pay off."

Across the United States, enrollment in engineering programs has risen to levels not seen in three decades. The recession appears to be one factor, as students and their parents look for dependable careers.

But some education officials detect a shift in opinion about the profession itself, as global warming and stem-cell research make fields like chemical and bioengineering more than just wise choices for job-seekers – but fashionable ones, too.

Many students are bringing to engineering a heightened sense of social responsibility and a desire "to go out and make a difference in the world," says Joseph Helble, dean of the Thayer School of Engineering at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H., where enrollment in introductory undergraduate courses is 30 percent above the five-year average.

Nationally, enrollment in undergraduate engineering programs rose 3 percent in 2007 and 4.5 percent 2008, according to the American Association of Engineering Education. Meanwhile, enrollment in masters' degree programs rose 7 percent in 2007 and 2 percent in 2008. In the fall of 2008, 91,489 masters degree students and 403,193 undergraduates were studying engineering at US universities and colleges.

Skeptics note that engineering remains a low priority for US students: Among the 25 top engineer-producing countries, the United States ranks No. 22 on a per capita basis. But here at the Milwaukee School of Engineering, applications have rebounded 25 percent during the past two years – with enrollment rising from 550 to 732 – after falling early in the decade. At Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Worcester, Mass., applications have risen 70 percent over the past five years, and the 902 freshmen who enrolled last fall were 100 more than expected.

"People laugh when I say we have another record-breaking year," said Kristin Tichenor, vice president of enrollment management at Worcester Polytechnic. "But it keeps going up."

The profession fell in popularity after the mid-1980s and has been struggling to recover ever since. Especially in depressed economic times, the lure of good job prospects for engineers seems to be helping.

"I do think that students, when difficult economic times come around, kind of fall back on some of the main curriculums – the bread-and-butter curriculums," says Tim Valley, vice president of enrollment management at the Milwaukee School. "There's also quite a bit written about the shortage of engineers in the United States: I think students are picking up on that."

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