As new technologies emerge, engineering schools are taking steps to keep future engineers in the know.
Local colleges are feeding growing interest in chemical, mechanical and biomedical engineering. Job opportunities in these areas and many others are expected to increase as engineers retire, making room for new talent.
Enrollment is up, more women are pursuing engineering as a field, starting salaries continue to climb, and career options are expanding, says Robert Clark, dean of the Hajim School of Engineering and Applied Sciences at the University of Rochester.
Roughly 650 undergraduate students are enrolled in the engineering school. Academic departments include computer science; biomedical, chemical, electrical and computer, and mechanical engineering; and the Institute of Optics.
"Things in the engineering world are great," says Clark, who joined UR in 2008 after working at Duke University. "For fall 2010, 20 percent more applicants indicated an interest in pursuing engineering as their academic program."
Rochester Institute of Technology's Kate Gleason College of Engineering also has seen an uptick in interest, says Harvey Palmer, dean of the college.
With an enrollment of 2,200 undergraduates, the engineering college offers biomedical, chemical, computer, electrical, industrial and systems, mechanical, microelectronic and software engineering undergraduate degrees.
"Fully half of our fall 2010 class enrolled in chemical engineering is composed of female students, and our overall college enrollment is growing steadily," says Palmer, who has served as dean for the last decade. He taught at UR before that.
Chemical and mechanical engineering programs are the most popular at UR and RIT. More students are being drawn to these disciplines because of the global interest in discovering sources of alternative energy, Palmer and Clark say.
Students in these programs learn about current research in fuel cells, biofuels and many other technologies.
Still, both universities face the challenge of helping the general student population understand more about engineering.
"High school students understand the subjects of physics, chemistry and math, but they don't really know what engineering is," Clark says.
To fill that gap, UR recently conducted a curriculum review process and will offer two new courses this fall that are intended for non-engineering majors. Along with an introductory course on alternative energy, freshmen also will be able to take a course on designing loudspeakers, scheduled to be taught by Clark.
"At UR, we attract numerous kids who are talented in math and science, as well as in music," he says. "They will have the opportunity to design and build their own loudspeaker systems, which will tie their natural passions together through a fun and hands-on experience."
Clark and his colleagues show students that the field involves both analytical and creative work.
"Math and science are the paintbrushes for expressing our engineering art form," Clark says. "For example, we use the computer as a portal to the external world, and products such as the iPad and iPhone are technological wonders that come out of a marriage between creativity and technology."
In addition to chemical engineering and mechanical engineering, another program that draws considerable student interest is UR's biomedical engineering offering. In fact, one-third of the university's engineering undergraduates are enrolled in this program, largely because of joint curriculum projects involving the Hajim School and the university's medical center.
Clark says the Institute of Optics, which offers degrees in optical engineering and optical sciences, also has a lot of momentum.
Job prospects continue to be strong for engineering graduates, which further bolsters the field as a career choice.
"The economy has been tough, but engineering remains one of the hottest prospect areas for our graduating students," Clark says. "Engineering offers an excellent foundation for any field that students wish to pursue.
"Literacy in technology will always be an asset to every young adult, whether they become an engineer, lawyer, doctor or businessperson."
Says Palmer: "Engineers define the way the world works. You can't identify any product in use that's not a direct result of engineering innovation."
RIT engineering graduates typically land jobs with starting salaries in the $60,000 range, he notes, and they enjoy lucrative and fulfilling careers.
Through RIT's required cooperative education program, students obtain real-life work experience. A co-op placement allows a student to dabble in the automotive or aerospace industry, alternative energy systems or ergonomics.
Also, RIT students participate in 20-week cross-disciplinary projects. During the 2009-2010 academic year, engineering students working in teams developed an artificial hand and devised a next-generation video imaging system that focused on facial recognition.
"By working as a team, the students gained real-life experience and learned to draw on the expertise of others," Palmer says.
In addition to technical skills, students also are offered courses in writing and oral presentation skills.
"To be a successful engineer, well-honed communication skills are just as important as technical skills," Palmer adds.
Claire Fisher, president and CEO of Fisher Associates P.C., agrees with this philosophy. She approves of the UR and RIT engineering curriculums. Fisher Associates employs 80 individuals and works chiefly on transportation, traffic, structural, civil, site and environmental engineering projects.
When hiring, Fisher looks for individuals with prior work experience that can be obtained either through a co-op program or an engineering-related summer job. She also looks for "personal pizzazz, brains and an outgoing personality."
Her firm is busy with projects ranging from highway and bridge design to building upgrades on college campuses. Two co-op students will work at Fisher Associates this summer.
"I have a positive attitude about the field of engineering as an excellent career option for college students," Fisher says. "As more engineers retire, opportunities for engineering graduates will only increase."
Debbie Waltzer is a Rochester-area freelance writer.