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Engineering enrollments remains high as new fields emerge

The field of engineering continues to be a strong career path with evolving trends to fit a changing world. While traditional engineering disciplines remain constant, the deans of Mississippi’s engineering schools see a rising interest in technology and environmental engineering and stabilization in the decline of computer science majors.

At Mississippi State University, Dr. Bob Taylor says civil engineering has also been growing recently. “It’s in a renaissance. Everywhere you go they’re building highways and there’s a lot of investment in the civil infrastructure of the nation. It’s hard to send that offshore,” he said.

He sees computer security and computer forensics as two big, emerging fields for engineering. “A big part of this emphasis is to become a resource to help train law enforcement,” he said. “Computer forensics traces how crimes evolve now that computers are used to commit crimes and can be a victim of crime if hackers get into them.”

MSU is a National Security Agency Center of Academic Excellence, a fairly new designation that includes certification and funding to educate professionals in computer information assurance and security.

Software engineering is another new specialty that’s a cross between computer science and industrial or systems engineering. MSU was one of the first four accredited programs in the country.

“These people develop very large software systems and are one level above programmers,” the MSU dean said. “They design and test systems in an effort to minimize flaws. It’s the kind of thing that makes it possible to talk on a cell phone.”
Aerospace engineering is also growing, and Taylor isn’t sure what the driving force is. He thinks interest may rise when the country is at war and lots of airplanes are flying. Other big departments in MSU’s School of Engineering are mechanical and electrical, along with computer science in spite of a recent downturn.

Following their interests?

“I’m still advising students to go into computer science because we’re a technical country. Anything from washing machines to automobiles has a computer in it,” he said. “That’s driving the economy and there will be a continuing demand for it.”

Taylor said if majors in computer science are down now, it doesn’t mean it will be four years from now. He feels that students major in what interests them and computers will continue to be of interest.

There is an increasing role in biological engineering that makes an extraordinarily good pre-med degree or can be used in the practice of biomedical engineering. “The biological sciences have impacted engineering across the board,” Taylor said. “These engineers are involved in medical fields such as designing devices and implants and tissue growing for burn victims to speed the skin grafting process.”

Dr. Kai-Fong Lee, dean of the School of Engineering at the University of Mississippi, said that although there are new fields of engineering, most can be incorporated into the existing disciplines. The six departments of the Ole Miss school are civil, chemical, electrical, geological, mechanical and computer science. Enrollments in mechanical, civil and electrical are all about the same with less in the other three engineering majors. The program has 580 undergraduate students and 240 graduate students.

“Up until about two years ago, computer science had the most students but now it’s dropping,” he said. “Chemical and geological have always been smaller than the other departments.”

Lee points out that the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET) reviews programs at least every six years to ensure that schools are teaching according to a specific criteria.

“They want us to give students a well-rounded education, not just technical,” he said. “The changes include communication and team work skills along with the ability to apply the knowledge of math and science.”

ABET specifies that engineering graduates must:

• be able to function with multi-disciplinary teams

• be able to identify, formulate and solve engineering problems

• have a broad education to understand engineering solutions in a global and societal context

• have a recognition of the need for and ability to engage in lifelong learning

• have knowledge of contemporary issues

• communicate effectively

• have the ability to analyze and interpret data and conduct experiments

• have the ability to design system components or processes

• have an understanding of professional and ethical responsibilities

• use techniques, skills and modern engineering tools necessary for engineering practice

“Our curriculum has to be designed to address these criteria,” Lee said. “Our students must relate to all of these and to humanity too. Several years ago the criteria wasn’t as broad. These changes came about because industry told schools they must educate students in all these other ways; things that are important.”

Bright futures for grads

Lee, an electrical engineer, also believes that the number of computer science majors will definitely be on the upswing again and that environmental engineering has a bright future.
There is a new interdisciplinary research group at Ole Miss that will explore the science of the small — nanotechnology. The team is composed of about a dozen engineering and science professors and includes professors from other universities.

“With the science of the small, matter is manipulated on a scale roughly four times bigger than an atom,” Lee said. “Flat screen televisions are an example of this technology.”

He said President Bush has authorized funding for nanotechnology research over the next three years. The National Science Foundation is putting money into this field, too.

“If science can control fundamental properties of materials without changing their basic composition, it will enable us to develop materials that are very strong and light,” Lee said.

Taylor says enrollment in engineering is up at Mississippi State with 1,900 undergraduates and 450 graduate students. Of those earning doctorate degrees, one-third go into teaching and two-thirds go into governmental and industrial research labs. He says that two-thirds of the research in the U.S. is done by engineers.

The MSU dean also notes that engineering is the first college degree among the CEOs of the Fortune 500 companies.

Contact MBJ contributing Lynn Lofton at mbj@msbusiness.com.

About Lynn Lofton

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