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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.

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For their part, undergraduates here say they were drawn to engineering for many reasons, including traditional ones like a love of math and science. But economic concerns do loom large.

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Sophomore Jeremy Heim thought about studying architecture. But engineering seemed to be a safer choice. "The more research I did in architecture, the more I realized it's not very reliable," says Heim of Lansing, Ill.

Others here, however, suggest an evolution in engineering.

Freshman Marguerite Wellstein, who is working with classmates to design a can-opener that can be operated with one hand, says she is studying biomedical engineering because "you get a better sense of helping people."

Her motivation suggests a change from the past. Last year, a National Academy of Engineering report lamented that "the public believes engineers are not as engaged with societal and community concerns as scientists or as likely to play a role in saving lives."

Biomedical advances, including those suggested by stem-cell research, have made biomedical engineering one of the fastest growing disciplines, especially for women. The concern over global warming and energy development has also drawn more young people to chemical and environmental engineering.

"Engineering enrollments peaked in the late '70s and early '80s when there were significant challenges with energy and the environment," says Mr. Helble of Dartmouth. "Fast forward 30 years, and we're in the same situation."

Some engineering schools have gone further, expanding into nontraditional fields to gains students. Three years ago, Worcester Polytechnic started a program in developing computer games and interactive media. "It took off," says Ms. Tichenor says.

There are doubts that the recent rise in enrollments points to a long-term change, however. Noting that America still produces relatively few engineers, the recent increases "are not anything to hang your hat on," says Richard Heckel, founder of Engtrends, a consulting firm in Houghton, Mich. The decline of auto industry could also turn high school students away.

Old problems hamper engineering schools, too: Attrition remains high and schools still struggle to attract larger numbers of blacks, Hispanics, and women.

"Programs that have been able to link with biomedical and environmental engineering, which are growing fields within engineering, they've been more attractive to women," says Daryl Chubin, head of the Center for Advancing Science and Engineering Capacity at the American Association for the Advancement of Science. "In general, however, people interested in the environment and energy are going to think about scientific disciplines, not engineering."

At the Milwaukee School of Engineering, freshman Ms. Wellstein is happy to be an exception. "Engineers have the best outlook," she says. "Most kids coming to MSOE have a job when they leave, even now."