I just renewed my professional society membership dues for the umpteenth year, and while writing the check, I paused to consider if I was getting good value from them. I expect to receive another "suitable for framing" certificate this year, as the number of my membership years ends with a zero, but I wondered if there were other, more tangible benefits.

I should have walked away from the computer at that point, but one question often leads to another, and so it was today. It’s been some time since I sat in a classroom (although I still have this recurring dream about arriving unprepared for a final exam), so I browsed over to look at engineering enrollment and graduation trends. They seem to have improved since my undergraduate days at San Diego State University, when my graduating class of mechanical engineers numbered an even dozen, giving me eternal bragging rights of having graduated in the top 10 of my class. Barely.

The National Science Foundation, which has charted science and engineering enrollments since 1972, reports that undergraduate engineering enrollments generally declined in the 1980s and 1990s, rebounding from 2000 through 2003, only to resume a slow decline since then. Engineering degrees awarded were just under 39,000 in 1976. They peaked in 1985 with 77,572, then slowly declined to 59,258 in 2001, and slowly rose to just over 68,000 in 2006 — accounting for 4.6% of all bachelor level degrees awarded that year.

The engineering profession continues to offer many excellent career opportunities, yet the academic challenges remain a formidable barrier for many.

Engineering Interest in Engineering

One of the leading organizations attempting to increase the number of engineers is the National Engineers Week Foundation (NEWF), a close coalition of more than 75 professional societies in partnership with major corporations and government agencies. Their dedicated purpose is "ensuring a diverse and well-educated future engineering workforce by increasing understanding of and interest in engineering and technology careers among young students and by promoting pre-college literacy in math and science." For 2009, the cochairs are Intel and the National Society of Professional Engineers.

NEWF reaches into K-12 schools to introduce the advantages of a science, technology, engineering, or math (STEM) career to "sustain and grow a dynamic engineering profession." The foundation, focused putting the E in STEM, is diligently working to remove "social, education, and economic barriers that deter young students from engineering and technology careers."

NEWF has designated February 15 – 21 as Engineers Week to highlight its many outreach activities, such as the Discover E project, through which 45,000 engineer mentors have worked with five and half million students and teachers through classroom visits and extracurricular projects in 2008; the Engineer Your Life project, which encourages young women to explore a career in engineering; and the Discover Engineering (www.discoverengineering.org) project for middle school students.

Inspiring Junior Engineers

Many 7th and 8th graders have been introduced to the profession of engineering by the National Engineers Week Future City Competition (www.futurecity.org), now in its 17th year and the nation’s largest not-for-profit engineering education program. For 2009, more than 30,000 middle schoolers nationwide will work in teams with volunteer engineers in a semester-long project to create their vision of a city of the future, complete with infrastructure, energy systems, and skyscrapers.

"The program inspires a respect for the role STEM plays in solving many of the pressing global and social needs we are all facing. And it helps possibly lay the foundation for many of them to pursue a career in these areas, something they might never have considered before," said Kathryn Gray, PE, National Engineers Week 2009 chair and past president of the National Society of Professional Engineers. The students create their cities using SimCity 4 Deluxe software and then build 3-D table-top scale models. This year’s topic is "Creating a Self Sufficient System Within the Home Which Conserves, Recycles and Reuses Existing Water Sources." Thirty-six regional competition winners from 1,100 middle schools will then compete head-to-head for the overall title in Washington, D.C., during National Engineers Week this month.

Pay Your Dues

Recruiting the next generation of engineers and technologists is important, so pay your dues. They’re being put to good use.

–Dr. Robert Peltier, PE