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Losing the geek image

Virginia engineering schools work to attract more graduates

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Print this page by Richard Foster

As dean of Virginia Tech’s College of Engineering, Richard C. Benson delivers presentations on a variety of technical topics, including aerospace, computer sciences and mining engineering. His favorite presentation, however, might just be the one featuring slides of Oscar-winning actor Michael Douglas.

First, Benson shows Douglas as the smart, polished, charismatic President Andrew Shepherd in “The American President.” The next slide is Douglas in his iconic 1987 “Wall Street” role as trader Gordon (“greed is good”) Gekko — slick, handsome, powerful.

Finally there’s Douglas as a defense engineer in “Falling Down” — nerdy, awkward and pretty much the exact opposite of the first two characters.

“Hollywood’s idea of how to portray the same human being as an engineer is he’s not so well dressed, he’s not so well groomed, he’s got a buzz cut, a pocket protector, tape on the glasses — all the stereotypical images Hollywood uses to portray an engineer,” Benson says. “People, when they’re very young, can get an impression of what the career’s like and make a decision based on what’s incorrect information.”

One of the nation’s top engineering schools, Tech produces roughly half of Virginia’s engineering grads, about 1,100 each year. In fact, Virginia’s public research universities boast several impressive engineering schools, offering cutting-edge fields of study.  There’s everything from nanotechnology and aerospace to computer gaming, undersea transportation and alternative energy development. Yet, despite the fact that engineering is a high-demand career across several sectors and industries, engineering schools across the nation still are battling to sway the hearts and minds of college-bound students.

In Virginia, Gov. Bob McDonnell recognizes the importance of more students earning degrees in the high-demand disciplines of science and technology.  He supported the infusion of $50 million into Virginia’s higher education system to increase college access and affordability.

As part of that initiative, he called on Virginia universities to form public-private partnerships aimed at increasing the number of students receiving STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) degrees. “It’s a fact that many of the jobs of tomorrow will come from these core areas,” McDonnell stated, “and I am committed to ensuring our children have the necessary tools to compete for them.”

STEM also has been a major education priority on the federal level, with the Obama administration creating public-private partnerships and government programs to increase STEM recruitment and literacy. The U.S. Department of Education’s $4.35 billion “Race to the Top” K-12 school grant program gives preference to states that commit to improving STEM education.

Former Lockheed Martin CEO Norman Augustine has been one of the leading advocates for the need to increase the focus on computer science and technology in American education. At a recent national summit, he said that the United States is lagging behind other countries in STEM education, harming our ability to compete in the global market. “We rank 21st in math and 25th in science out of 30 nations,” Augustine said. “The major challenges we face can be centered in two areas: One is underinvestment in basic research to create new knowledge … and secondly [the challenge is] properly trained people.”

Finding people to train is a key concern for Lloyd Griffiths, dean of George Mason University’s Volgenau School of Information Technology and Engineering. GMU’s engineering program has forged very close relationships with Washington, D.C.-area government contractors such as Lockheed and Northrop Grumman. GMU students often work for the companies while they’re still in school.

“Local industry wants twice as many [graduates] as we’re producing,” Griffiths says. “… There’s more demand than we can supply.”

Meanwhile, GMU and other Virginia universities are investing heavily in trying to get kids interested in engineering and other science and math disciplines.

“Speaking as a dean, this is one of my highest priorities,” Griffiths says. “When I go out to companies and speak to organizations, it’s a very rare speech when I don’t talk about STEM. It’s critical to the future of the country.”

GMU’s Sunrise Engineering Outreach Program partners graduate students with K-12 science and math teachers in Northern Virginia public schools, offering hands-on lessons and presentations focusing on fun, flashy fields of study ranging from artificial intelligence and robotics to computer gaming simulations and oceanographic technology.

The University of Virginia’s School of Engineering & Applied Science offers a high school course, Introduction to Engineering,  for focusing on real-world problems. “They’ve done things like designing solar systems for houses,” says Dean James Aylor. “We usually try to pick a problem that is current, like alternative energy.”
Virginia Tech offers a variety of engineering school youth recruitment programs, including a two-week residential camp for girls focused on hands-on computer engineering exercises.

Virginia Commonwealth University also offers a number of teen outreach programs. It sponsors the area’s annual FIRST robotics competition and RAP ME, the Richmond Area Program for Minorities in Engineering. VCU additionally sponsored a local high school team in a NASCAR-sponsored competition to design and build model race cars.

VCU is aiming more of its efforts toward a younger audience — middle school students. VCU Engineering School Dean Russell Jamison is convinced that middle school is the crossroads at which students — particularly females and minorities — get turned off by math and science.

“Science and math can be a little dry,” Jamison says. “Engineering is the place where science and math are applied to problem solving.” By showing young people the exciting possibilities offered by engineering careers, Jamison hopes to re-invigorate their interest in STEM studies.

Engineering schools are also recruiting community college students, working with the Virginia Community College System (VCCS) on long-distance learning programs and study options that allow qualified community college students guaranteed admission into programs at universities such as Tech and U.Va. Furthermore, companies such as Rolls-Royce are working with VCCS on work-study programs that help employees earn engineering degrees.

The need for more STEM graduates remains “a huge problem,” GMU’s Griffiths allows, but we haven’t lost the race yet, he says. While foreign STEM graduation numbers are higher, he says, America still possesses a great spirit of entrepreneurship and ingenuity.

“We built this country on innovation,” he says. “People in other countries made it better, smaller, faster, cheaper, but they didn’t invent it, and it’s that innovation that really drives things.”

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