STARKVILLE — As Mississippi prepares its workforce to compete in the world economy, it can no longer rely on offering industry low-wage workers. Instead, many state leaders believe that improving the technical skill levels of Mississippi workers is critical to increasing the state’s average per capita income and lifting the state off the bottom of the nation’s economic ladder.
The Mississippi State University (MSU) College of Engineering believes that engineering education can have a dramatic impact on giving state students the skills and knowledge they need to compete for higher paying jobs.
Dr. A. Wayne Bennett, dean of the MSU College of Engineering, said the engineering department’s primary goal is assuring that students who enter their classrooms receive the skills and knowledge needed to enable them to live productively.
“In a world marketplace dominated by technology, those businesses and industries need employees with strong math and science skills to compete successfully,” Bennett said. “Improving our K-12 math and science education is the key to preparing good engineers and scientists, good workers for our businesses and factories, and better voters and wise consumers.”
WORKING FOR BUSINESS
There are a number of programs underway at the MSU engineering school, considered one of the top engineering schools in the country, that are directed toward economic development. Bennett recently wrote two opinion pieces on the impact of engineering education on all Mississippians. The College of Engineering is involved in K-12 outreach, has one employee hired specifically to work with K-12 outreach, and believes it is critical to get students on a math and engineering path long before they enter college.
“We can play a great role in helping the state move forward,” Bennett said. “We can’t compete anymore by offering low-pay labor force.”
Bennett is concerned that the math and science scores of students across the country are too low. The Third International Math and Science Study recently was released providing data on the performance of the nation’s fourth, eighth and 12th graders. The test measures skills in math and science, disciplines fundamental to success in engineering and other technical professions.
“Unfortunately, the results are not encouraging,” Bennett said. “Our fourth graders are about average, but by the eight grade, U.S. students are below average and scores continue to decline through the 12th grade.
“These scores are more than predictors of success for students studying engineering. They are an ominous warning of our problems in competing in the global economic marketplace. Whether or not our fourth, eighth and 12th graders plan to study engineering, they will become involved in our businesses and industries. In a world marketplace dominated by technology, those businesses and industries need employees with strong math and science skills to compete successfully.”
Bennett believes that changing the way science is taught could make students more excited about science, and more likely to pursue technical skills. He agrees with Rep. Vernon Ehlers, (R-Mich.), the first physicist elected to Congress, that science should be taught by doing science — not just talking about science. Science should be taught as a method of inquiry, not a collection of facts.
Curricula needs to be objective centered, experiment oriented and concept based.
“Many of the concepts Congressman Ehlers proposes could be enhanced through partnerships between K-12 education and the nation’s engineering schools,” Bennett said. “This is a direction in which MSU’s College of Engineering has been moving for some time. We have a full-time staff member dedicated to working with the K-12 system. We are exploring ways we can work with MSU’s colleges of education, and arts and sciences, as well as our state extension services.”
ENGINEERING IN EVERYDAY LIFE
Bennett said that for more than 100 years the MSU College of Engineering has devoted itself to educating some of the state’s and nation’s most outstanding professions. But what many people may not realize is that the program has profound effects on Mississippi and on Mississippians who may never set foot on the Starkville campus.
“Let me give you an example,” Bennett said. “New environmental regulations are putting new demands on communities to handle the wastes generated by citizens and by industry. Gone are the days when it was acceptable to bulldoze wastes and forget about them.
“We’re preparing young engineers to return to their communities and respond to the challenges of monitoring and designing effective waste management systems. In outreach courses taught by our professors, we’re offering resources for technical managers in Mississippi communities. And in-service programs such as the Mississippi Technical Assistance Program, based in the college, are helping provide the latest information about water, hazardous waste, solid waste, air pollution, and pollution prevention.”
Bennett said that is just one example. If you look around the state you will see MSU-educated engineers designing solutions for the future from building highways to keeping Mississippi industries efficient and competitive.
Faculty members are involved in designing smart manufacturing systems. They are also designing ways for cotton ginning to become automated, and ways for the state’s growing furniture industry to recycle fabric remnants. Through their research, faculty members are helping find solutions to specific problems the state faces, and they are bringing up-to-the-minute information into their classrooms.
“Like states around the nation, Mississippi faces increasing pressures to find new ways to attract industry, and to assure a technically capable work force,” he said. “Engineering education and research can help the state meet that challenge. Providing a top-level education for Mississippi’s young men and women has been the hallmark of this College of Engineering. In fulfilling that commitment, it also is serving the state in countless contributions to our quality of life. For Mississippi, that’s a win-win situation.”