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SMU Engineering

School plans Institute for Engineering Education.

Thanks to a recent federal grant, Southern Methodist University will establish a national institute devoted to promoting engineering education from kindergarten through graduate school. Geoffrey Orsak, associate dean for research and development at the SMU School of Engineering, filled us in on the school’s plans.

Could you tell us a little bit about the recent funding SMU received and the national institute it has planned?

Thanks in large measure to the leadership of Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, SMU received $800,000 to establish The Institute for Engineering Education at SMU. The Institute will be one of the very first in the country to focus its efforts solely on increasing the quantity, quality, and diversity of engineers entering in the workforce.

The Institute is developing and deploying engineering curricula, new technologies, and innovative professional development programs for teachers specifically aimed at the K-12 classroom, with an objective of increasing the preparedness of young students to pursue careers in engineering and technology as well as increasing the awareness of engineering and technology as exciting careers.

While access to technology has significantly improved nationwide, studies show that too few students excel in math and science. How will the new institute better prepare high school students for pursuit of an engineering degree?

The Institute’s educational initiatives will reach a broad cross section of our student population with programs that are fun for the kids to learn and equally fun for the teachers to teach. Our data has shown that more than 65 percent of the students taking our high-school engineering course are “strongly interested” in pursuing engineering at the collegiate level. Contrast this with the norm where typically only 2 percent of high-school students have an interest in pursuing engineering. Data from our programs have shown that these students both highly motivated and well prepared to succeed in these college programs.

Current statistics show that of those students who enter engineering school, only 40 percent complete the programs. What types of specific programs and curricula does the new institute have planned to help retain students?

Engineering schools have done a poor job of retaining the few students who express interest in an engineering degree. Nationally, very few schools have exciting engineering curricula for their freshman class-typically, freshman students are sent off to calculus, physics, and chemistry before they even see an engineering course. Because of this, we lose approximately half of our engineering students in the freshman year alone.

The Institute is developing a hands-on freshman curriculum that gives students a reason to push through the rigors of a four-year engineering degree. This curriculum has already been piloted at SMU and our freshman retention rate has jumped from 45 percent to 90 percent. The Institute will also be implementing a one-year transitional program for students who lack preparation in math, science, and engineering.

Is there a current shortage of qualified engineers, or do you foresee a shortage in the future?

Even in our current economic climate, there is a shortage of engineers. Some studies have shown that there are still more than 400,000 unfilled engineering positions in the United States economy alone. To place this in context, the U.S. only produces about 60,000 new engineers every year.

I expect to see a high demand for people with engineering skills in nearly every part of our economy. The coming decades will be very good for people who can solve problems, create new opportunities, and handle the ambiguities of real life-and engineers are educated for just these realities.

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