NCBI Bookshelf. A service of the National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health.

Government-University-Industry Research Roundtable (US); National Academy of Sciences (US); National Academy of Engineering (US); Institute of Medicine (US); Fox MA, editor. Pan-Organizational Summit on the US Science and Engineering Workforce: Meeting Summary. Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US); 2003.

Cover of Pan-Organizational Summit on the US Science and Engineering Workforce

Pan-Organizational Summit on the US Science and Engineering Workforce: Meeting Summary.

Show details

Engineering Education and the Science and Engineering Workforce


David Wormley, Dean of Engineering, Pennsylvania State University, Chair, Engineering Deans Council, American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE)


A vibrant engineering education enterprise benefits civic, economic, and intellectual activity in this country. Engineering graduates learn to integrate scientific and engineering principles to develop products and processes that contribute to economic growth, advances in medical care, enhanced national security systems, ecologically sound resource management, and many other beneficial areas. As a result, students who graduate with engineering degrees bring highly prized skills into a wide spectrum of sectors in the American workforce. Some conduct research that results in socially or economically valuable technological applications. Others produce and manage the technological innovations said to account for one third to one half of growth in the American economy. Still more bring advanced analytical abilities and knowledge of high technology to fields as diverse as health care, financial services, law, and government. Within all of these groups, the diversity of engineering graduates' backgrounds and viewpoints contributes to their ability to achieve the advances in innovation, productivity, and effectiveness that make them valuable contributors to the American workplace.


At a time when technological innovations are intrinsically coupled with virtually every aspect of society, it is imperative to develop a scientific and technically literate society. However, broad indicators of shortcomings in developing technical competencies within the U.S. population at large indicate the scale of the challenge at hand. In 2001, companies spent over $57 billion on training, much of which paid for workers' training in basic skills that should have been learned in school.1 Meanwhile, the United States' poor performance in teaching math and science—shown in results from the Third International Mathematics and Science Study and the National Assessment of Educational Progress—eliminates many of the best and brightest schoolchildren from the ranks of future scientists and engineers. With little chance to learn in school how science and math skills might translate into professionally useful knowledge, students are unable to make informed choices about further education and work options. As a result, some unprepared students undertake science and engineering studies in college, only to drop out; other, potentially capable, students never consider these subjects in the first place. In both cases, precious human and institutional resources are squandered.

An increasingly large share of the workforce consists of women and minorities. The 2000 report of the Commission on the Advancement of Women & Minorities in Science, Engineering, and Technology notes that, although African-Americans and Hispanics represent 3 percent each of the technical workforce, they are each 15 percent of the school-age population. Demographic projections only reinforce this point: by 2035, these students will rise from about 30 percent to nearly 50 percent of the nation's schoolchildren.2 Twenty years of improvements in math and science achievement have brought girls near parity with boys on National Assessment of Educational Progress tests. However, as they move through middle and high school, girls' interest in math and science wanes, as teacher, parent, peer, and media influences work in complex, often unconscious, ways to discourage their pursuit of these subjects. As a result, women represent only 19 percent of the technical workforce, although they represent 46 percent of all American workers. Success in encouraging and retaining women and underrepresented minorities throughout their pre-college, college, and postgraduate years must be a core component of enhancing the U.S. science and engineering workforce.

A curriculum framework based on connecting science and mathematics to the world around them can also impart habits of mind to students that yield benefits beyond workplace productivity and career advancement. At the simplest level, the imperatives of good citizenship increasingly require acquaintance with fundamental principles of scientific knowledge. Taking a problem-based approach to learning, engineering education asks students to integrate knowledge and practices from the sciences, economics, language, and creative arts. Thus, elements of science and engineering education are important contributors to developing fully literate citizens.


In 2001, just over 65,000 students earned engineering bachelor's degrees. While this is almost 3,000 more than in 1999, the total represents a decrease from the mid-1980s, when about 85,000 students a year graduated with engineering degrees. Nearly 386,000 students were enrolled in undergraduate engineering programs last year; however, the national attrition rate is high, and at least 40 percent of students who start engineering programs do not finish them.

Graduate enrollments increased approximately 5 percent in 2001, with approximately 79,000 master's degree students and 41,500 doctoral students. Within these groups, 43 percent of master's degrees and 54 percent of doctorates were awarded to foreign-born students, and these trends have been increasing. Meanwhile, U.S. engineering graduates incur near-term financial penalties for choosing grad school—with its modest stipends and delayed rewards—over immediate employment at some of the highest salary levels among college graduates. Foreign-born students bring a wealth of diversity and energy to U.S. campuses, but they also have an increasing inclination to return to their home countries after graduating, taking with them expertise and potential achievement that would otherwise enhance the strength of the U. S. science and engineering workforce.

In 2001, 19.9 percent of bachelor's degrees in engineering were awarded to women, 5.3 percent to African-Americans and 6.4 percent to Hispanics. For women and African-Americans, these percentages represent slight but perceptible decreases from recent years. And indeed, when understood in the context of recent increases in overall undergraduate enrollments, these dwindling percentages indicate even more clearly that engineering is failing to attract the diversity of students needed to draw on the full extent of abilities available in an increasingly diverse American society.

Engineering programs' faculties have comparably low representations of women and underserved minorities. Women make up about 9 percent of tenured and tenure-track faculty members, although they account for 17.5 percent of assistant professors. African-Americans and Hispanics make up less than 3 percent of tenured and tenure-track faculties, although they also represent a higher percentage of the entry faculty levels. If women and minority faculty continue to increase at the entry levels, their presence could increase in the future. In light of the trends in undergraduate enrollments, however, such increases might not be sustainable because the pool of future women and minority faculty members is currently decreasing.

These statistics suggest that efforts to expand the reach of engineering education to the entire spectrum of American society have not succeeded. In spite of the growing importance of technology-related activities to American life in the 21st century, the number of U.S. students pursuing studies and work in technical fields is not increasing proportionally, particularly at the graduate level. For the United States to retain a position of global leadership in these fields, these trends must be reversed.


In formulating responses to the challenges described here, engineering educators have taken as a guiding principle the need to attract better-prepared students into engineering programs and to provide them with an education that increasingly helps them meet their personal and professional goals.

The Need to Partner with K-12

The failure to prepare K-12 students with the knowledge they need to make an informed choice about pursuing a career in a scientific or technical area requires significantly increased cooperation between science and engineering professionals and K-12 teachers and students. We need to engage vigorously and collectively to help teachers develop new curricula and to help students understand the ways in which careers in science and engineering help society.

The Need to Reform Engineering Education

Recent changes in the practice of engineering education span the content of the curriculum, the organizational and operational principles of engineering education programs, and the opportunities for learning available in the field. This reform in engineering education has been dramatic— perhaps matched only by the development of science-based engineering education in the 1950s—and continues to occur not only in higher education but also in the K-12 arena. Codified in the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET) Engineering Criteria 2000, new approaches to engineering accreditation require engineering programs to incorporate critical professional skills and content into their curricula and to strive for adaptability and accountability to their constituencies in their operations and principles. In line with this trend, engineering educators have significantly revised the ways in which they assess the effectiveness of their own programs. Previously, engineering education assessment consisted largely in monitoring schools' adherence to a fairly uniform curriculum. Reform in engineering education assessment now holds schools to a standard of continuous self-improvement, encouraging schools to develop rigorous practices for defining educational missions and demonstrating results that show fulfillment of these missions.

In addition to the fundamental science and engineering content, increasingly important elements in the engineering curriculum are effective communications, working in teams, and organizational management. Recognizing that new technologies drive so much economic growth, more and more engineering educators are teaching entrepreneurship to students, many of whom will provide the technical know-how for new companies and innovative products to come. And in an effort to stem the tide of attrition among engineering students, colleges increasingly provide substantive, hands-on design and engineering content in freshman courses emphasizing the creative aspects of engineering. This marks a change from the traditional engineering curriculum that puts students through rigorous training in mathematics and science before providing a context for the engineering process.

Engineering programs are evolving to make available opportunities to pursue diverse areas of study that match the rapid pace of discovery and innovation in science and engineering, many of which are interdisciplinary. Advances in understanding and manipulating the mechanics of molecular and atomic activity have created new realms for engineering education and research. Significant new programs in bioengineering and nanotechnology have been initiated at many schools, drawing rapidly growing numbers of students.


Many engineering educators have devoted significant effort to changing the way we recruit and support our students so that as many students as possible from as many different American neighborhoods as possible have a chance to pursue a scientific or engineering career. Some general recommendations, based on this experience, follow.

K-12 Engineering Education

Starting at least in middle school, and preferably earlier, schoolchildren need exposure to engineering concepts and applications. Existing pre-college mathematics and science curricula can, in most cases, accommodate content related to engineering without departing from standards-driven educational imperatives. The significant number of highly successful engineering education outreach programs to K-12 classrooms across the country show that this is possible. Pre-college engineering education offers a vehicle for applying mathematics and science to students' real-world experiences, for developing a sense of the creative aspects of engineering, and for showing how working in teams contributes to achieving goals. Equipped with both a sense of how mathematics and science relates to their lives and an understanding of the creative aspects of engineering, high school graduates will be better able to make informed choices about studying engineering and other technical fields.

Reducing Attrition in Higher Education

Attrition among students who start out in engineering education programs results from various factors. One force behind the high attrition rates in the study of engineering is the lack of preparation in technical fields that high school graduates have when entering college. Students enter engineering programs without either sufficient preparation in math and science or a comprehensive grasp of what a career in engineering entails. As a result, they face stark academic challenges in their first year of college, which they must bear without a clear sense of how their studies relate to their future profession.

The task of attracting and retaining a diverse student body is influenced by the climate that students encounter in engineering programs. For women and minorities, the presence of role models and mentors on the faculty often increases these students' abilities to imagine themselves continuing and succeeding in the field. In addition, active peer support networks provide a community of fellow students with whom they can share their trials and successes. Increased effort is needed to create environments that combine intellectual stimulation with opportunities for social and personal growth to help the broadest range of students become successful in and committed to engineering.

Engineering education needs to accelerate the pace of reform and renewal and to consider both undergraduate and graduate programs from a holistic view. Further efforts are needed to integrate the important interdisciplinary elements of science and engineering and, equally important, the context of the practice and role of engineering in a technology-driven society in the curriculum. These measures will help reduce currently high attrition rates and make the educational experience more rewarding and efficient for students and professors alike.

Government's Role

Government at the local, state, and federal levels can help in developing the science and engineering workforce needed for the future. Government support is vital to

  • encourage all high school graduates to take four years of mathematics and science;
  • provide opportunities and support for in-service teacher professional development in K-12 science, technology, engineering, and mathematics and for enhancements to science, technology, engineering, and mathematics content in teacher-training programs;
  • support partnerships between K-12 and higher education;
  • provide graduate student support in science and engineering; and
  • provide support for faculty starting their careers in science and engineering.


A final suggestion pertains more generally to how we frame studying and working in engineering, science, and technology fields within a broader social context. Aligning these fields with the services they render to society as a whole will do much to attract the best students for the best reasons—the chance to engineer, if you will, a world free from pain through bioengineering, a world free from fear through technology-supported counter-terrorism measures, and a world free from environmental degradation through appropriate uses of our natural resources and the development of renewable energy supplies. Such a message that combines the promise of personal rewards with the opportunity to make meaningful contributions to the world we all share would provide a powerful foundation for the work we are contemplating here today.



Training Magazine, “Industry Report 2001,” Minneapolis: Bil Communications.


Commission on the Advancement of Women and Minorities in Science, Engineering and Technology Development (2000). Land of Plenty: Diversity as America's Competitive Edge in Science and Technology.


American Society for Engineering Education (2001). Profiles of Engineering and Engineering Colleges. Washington, DC.

Copyright © 2003, National Academy of Sciences.
Bookshelf ID: NBK36351


  • PubReader
  • Print View
  • Cite this Page
  • PDF version of this title (13M)

Recent Activity

Your browsing activity is empty.

Activity recording is turned off.

Turn recording back on

See more...