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National Research Council (US) Chemical Sciences Roundtable; Burland DM, Doyle MP, Rogers ME, et al., editors. Preparing Chemists and Chemical Engineers for A Globally Oriented Workforce: A Workshop Report to the Chemical Sciences Roundtable. Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US); 2004.

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Preparing Chemists and Chemical Engineers for A Globally Oriented Workforce: A Workshop Report to the Chemical Sciences Roundtable.

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5Does the U.S. Style of Chemical Engineering Education Serve the Nation Well?


University of California, Santa Barbara

In thinking about how well chemical engineering departments in the United States perform in preparing chemical engineers for a global workforce, the key issue is a larger dilemma in engineering education. The challenges to a global workforce from the engineering point of view involve how engineers are educated, regardless of engineering discipline. There is no quick fix to the global part of this. Instead, some overall issues in engineering education must be addressed.


A report to the Government-University-Industry Research Roundtable (GUIRR) in 2003, led by Shirley Jackson, president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, begins by documenting evidence that the U.S. competitive status in the global economy is eroding (GUIRR, 2003). In fact, the worldwide competition is picking up in excellence, training, and entrepreneurial activities; even the status quo would represent a declining share in these areas for the United States. Not enough students are choosing majors in science, mathematics, engineering, and technology to maintain the current levels, let alone to sustain the U.S. leadership in these fields. There are certainly concerns expressed in the GUIRR report about the level of technical and mathematical competence of U.S. students and about the production of Ph.D.s. The role of international scientists and engineers in developing many important technologies in this country cannot be overestimated, with the United States relying to a large extent on importing talent when it has been difficult to find this at home.

The data and trends are supported by citations in the report and form the basis of its proposal aimed at augmenting the number of people entering the U.S. science and engineering workforce. The report addresses one major global issue that chemists and chemical engineers face: the diminished capacity to compete in science and engineering. Many of the points are directed at educational institutions, particularly with respect to the students that are choosing majors, the caliber of preparation, and U.S. production of scientists and engineers.

Some of the trends outlined in the GUIRR report that can be viewed as weaknesses from a purely U.S. perspective could be turned into strengths from a global perspective. For example, with the proper exploitation and development, the importation of international talent could be turned into a strength in the international world.

There are obstacles and limitations, however, to what can be achieved by the importation of talent from outside the United States. First of all, the ability to recruit from abroad may be limited by immigration restrictions driven by, for example, security or economic concerns or policy decisions. Second, comparable opportunities are becoming available to students in their native countries. Countries that once supplied major fractions of the U.S. international science and engineering workforce are now providing first-world kinds of opportunities themselves. South Korea is a good example, and India and China have been mentioned earlier in the meeting. They are far behind, but one can see where things are going.

In fact, the “stay rates” of foreign scientists and engineers who study in the United States cannot rise much further, so not much growth of this kind can be expected. However, there is some hope in changing the absolute numbers. They have been stable and high for a long time. In science and engineering, historically about 63 percent of foreign students who study in the United States stay here. In the physical sciences, the stay rate is 73 percent, and in electrical engineering and computer science, it is 81 percent. The stay rate does have a limit (GUIRR, 2003). However, keeping the high rate of foreign participation, at least by the highest-quality students, may be a challenge in the future.


There are positive and negative signs in the health of U.S. chemical engineering programs. On the positive side, starting salaries for various degree levels for chemical engineering graduates have stayed reasonably high, comparable with the highest in engineering. This generally reflects the technical versatility of chemical engineers, who are often able to work not only in the chemical industry, but in the biotechnology, electronics, and food industries, for example. The diversity of fields in which chemical engineers work is very great.

At the same time, there have been declines in both chemistry and chemical engineering graduate student enrollments over the last decade that are cause for some concern. In chemistry, enrollment dropped from 17,204 in 1993 to 15,707 in 2000; in chemical engineering, it dropped from 6,079 in 1993 to 5,865 in 2000 (RAND, 2002). However, there is strong competition in academic chemical engineering right now because of the rapid growth in bioengineering programs; many chemical engineering departments may be unduly worried.

Universities are responding in some reflexive rather than strategic ways to opportunities represented by biology as it intersects with engineering. In particular, universities are starting new undergraduate departments in biomedical engineering rather than making room for biology in every engineering curriculum. The trend of starting biomedical engineering departments does not imply a pervasive influence of biology across the engineering curriculum, but in some sectors it is a tendency to specialize narrowly at too early a stage. It certainly does drive some of the enrollments because students, no doubt, are interested in biology. The current state of concern in chemical engineering over the role of bioengineering embodies an issue that is crucial to the future of engineering in general.


Thinking about the overall goal of engineering education leads to the question of what engineers are actually being trained for. Academic engineers have not studied this or expressed it clearly among themselves enough. It is difficult to say what engineering is. So what do engineers do?

William Wulf, president of the National Academy of Engineering (NAE), defined simply what engineering does: engineering embodies design under constraints. What are some of the constraints? Some are economic, and some are temporal. Sometimes a job is done to the best extent possible in the available time. Engineers accept conditions and constraints when they do their jobs. Social and cultural constraints may include human factors, such as understanding what gets individual human beings to adopt particular products. There are ethical constraints: just because something can be done does not mean that it should be done. There is also a lack of knowledge of fundamental science, a constraint that current modern chemical engineering focuses on a lot. In other words, there is a kind of reinterpretation of chemical engineering as applied or basic chemical science necessary for particular achievements, and there is not as much focus on some of the other constraints.

By focusing on the other constraints of engineers, one can address some of the issues related to globalization. There is a fundamental challenge to address the other constraints well in engineering education. It is a fundamental challenge that strongly affects U.S. effectiveness in preparing a global workforce: there is an insufficient focus on preparing students for what engineers do. The constraints together reflect engineers' effectiveness in the workforce and their impact on society and the world.

Academic chemical engineering probably does not adequately appreciate engineering as a profession. Some of the issues discussed in this workshop could be addressed more effectively if engineering in universities were thought of more as a profession than as a major. Engineering is not exactly parallel to the other majors.

The current emphasis on biology, biological engineering, and biomedical engineering is occurring because of the enormous opportunities—the ability of the new science generated to become applied science, and the potential for that to have a favorable effect on the economy, society, and the quality of human life. This area of applied biological science and applied science in general is not synonymous with engineering. That is where the applied-science view of engineering comes in.

Lack of knowledge of basic science is sometimes, but not usually, the most important constraint on an engineer in the workforce. More often, the others—economic, political, and social—dominate. For example, it is not mainly lack of a science base among engineers that inhibits the introduction of expensive new biomedical technology into health care. It has more to do with regulatory affairs and the willingness of insurance companies to pay for it. It is not mainly lack of a science base among engineers and scientists that inhibits the introduction of genetically modified foods in countries where they could conceivably bring economic or social benefit or that limits the wider use or exploitation of stem-cell technology or cloning. Other constraints are involved.

There may be a lack of a science base in society that keeps people from appreciating engineers more. However, this is not the most important issue here. More important is what scientists and engineers can do themselves to understand the economic, political, and social constraints to prepare for the global workforce better. This is not to suggest that biomedical technology, genetically modified foods, or cloning should be adopted, but rather it is the lack of understanding the constraints other than the technical ones that are keeping that from happening.


U.S. engineering education is not well equipped to deal with the matters just discussed. One problem is in attracting the right people into engineering.

A bigger problem than the slightly declining enrollment figures cited earlier is the relatively low retention, from their initial declaration of interest in a major all the way through to a degree, of students who initially choose engineering studies. According to Bill Wulf, speaking at the 2003 NAE annual meeting, only about half the students that initially indicate interest in an engineering degree follow through to the actual attainment of that degree. For example, the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB), has a freshman seminar course in which for 10 weeks students get a 1-hour introduction per week to what chemical engineers do. In recent years, there have been about 65-70 students per class. Over the same period, UCSB has graduated between 35 and 40 majors in chemical engineering. Where do those who do not continue go?

It may be that the weaker students drop out or transfer to other majors. Perhaps they do not see early enough in their education that engineering is design under constraint for the benefit of society and the economy. That may go all the way back into elementary and secondary education: they do not see engineering as consistent with their goal in life, which is to do good in the world. Some interesting programs are designed to counteract this, at least at the university level. Northwestern has a program called Engineering First that makes a serious attempt to engage engineering students in the design aspects of engineering very early in their education. That is where the principal point about the need for more professional orientation in engineering education comes in.

Pedagogy in academic engineering is divorced from industrial practice. There is no industry to hire undergraduate bioengineering majors. About 75 percent of the students from the biggest producers of undergraduate degrees in biomedical engineering, such as Johns Hopkins and Duke, go to medical school, and a large fraction of the rest go to graduate school. This is not necessarily a bad thing, and not everyone has to do everything the same way, but those undergraduate programs are definitely not preparing students at that level for a need that is seen in industry.


There is concern that students are not going to be fully functional unless they are given a good view of and exposure to an increasing science base. Many people would argue that it is not possible to do some of the things that have been discussed here, because programs are already overconstrained, and students need a strong grounding in fundamentals.

There is certainly merit to that argument. The increasing set of fundamentals is rooted historically in engineering science, physics, and continuous mathematics and now in biology, information technology (not just programming, but discrete mathematics, and integrated aspects), scientific computation, and so on. It would be ideal for students to have grounding in all of these, but it is not feasible.

The net effect is that major elements of a liberal education are being squeezed out—the same elements that are often tied to the higher-order skills that industrial colleagues say are needed. Languages and a lot of electives involving history and studies of other cultures have been squeezed out. This is also true of the study of business, management, and economics, which might be a bit more palatable or acceptable as a logical extension or diversification of engineering education.

Efforts must be made to provide students with understanding in the fields that are being squeezed out by a largely exclusive emphasis in current engineering education on the constraints under which engineers operate. More room has to be found for this, and not only because companies that operate in a global workforce need people who are more adept at the skills associated with the other conditions under which engineers operate. It is fundamentally important to attract the best students into the field. How engineers function in society and affect society has to be highlighted more to attract the best students.


Three practical elements are worth considering in moving toward a more professional education for students: management exposure, faculty development, and internship and cooperative experiences.

Management Exposure

Engineering students need to get exposure to the management side of industry during their professional education. Technology management programs in engineering can be effective adjuncts to engaging students in engineering education. UCSB is launching the Center for Entrepreneurship and Engineering Management that was built around extracurricular activities and now is moving into the curriculum with the hiring of faculty. The program was driven by student demands, and the course, which involves a mixture of undergraduates and graduate students, is a basic course on business and management taught in a technology management context. The coursework is oversubscribed. One of the best features is that about half of the students (of the 50 student limit per course) come from elsewhere on campus.

Faculty Development

Some thought must also be given to faculty careers: development or management and involvement with industry. In engineering, engaging in consulting, technological startups, and other kinds of deep involvement with industry should be viewed in the most favorable light possible that is consistent with academic standards and other practices. This fits with the idea of starting to treat engineering as a profession.

Universities are not likely to hire artists that have not produced art or music, and doctors and lawyers are trained through a professional experience that goes beyond a basic undergraduate degree. Nothing less should be expected of an engineer. It is not clear how to do this, but it needs to be different from having universities hire experienced industrial people at a senior level in their careers. This approach works well many times, but more often, it produces situations in which war stories are told that are difficult to relate to the rest of an engineering education. As an alternative, universities must determine how to value professional involvement and the practice of engineering in a faculty member's career development, even if he or she starts out as an assistant professor with no industrial experience.

Internship and Cooperative Experiences

Internships and cooperative programs may be the best prospects for students for both the experience and the possibilities that they provide students. These kinds of opportunity, with the right kind of relationships with multinational corporations, can be enlarged to produce the global exposure and awareness that are desired.


In many cases, the four-year engineering degree limits what can be accomplished. Doctors and other professionals are not trained in four years. Fundamentals cannot be sacrificed, so the only variable that can be played with is time.

Without prescribing the exact solution, I find it evident that engineering should be treated more as a profession than as a major. This means expanding the four-year engineering degree into a five-year program. The expansion should probably offer some compensating benefits or advantages, at least to induce students to engage in it—perhaps a master's degree or some other kind of credential.

There are some risks, of course. If a university required that the engineering degree take five years, the result might be an even more dramatic impact on enrollments than the overall trends already seen. Either a highly recognized leader in education—a private or major public school that offers engineering—or some adventurous maverick would have to be willing to take some risks for a possible high reward.

The view presented here is admittedly a very personal one and offers this proposition: The way to approach some of the needs that have been expressed here and to attract the best people into chemical engineering to address global needs is to redefine an engineering degree as a professional degree.


  1. Government-University-Industry Research Roundtable (GUIRR). Envisioning a 21st Century Science and Engineering Workforce for the US: Tasks for University, Industry and Government. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press; 2003.
  2. Halford B. CHEMICAL ENGINEERING EDUCATION IN FLUX: Mindful of declining enrollments, educators emphasize the field's evolution, new directions. Chem. & Eng. News. 2004;82(10):34–36.
  3. Hill Susan T. Science and Engineering Degrees: 1966-2000. Arlington, VA: National Science Foundation, Division of Science Resources Statistics; 2002. NSF 02-327.
  4. Eiseman E, Koizumi K, Fossum D. Federal Investment in R&D. Arlington, VA: RAND Science and Technology Policy Institute; 2002. (Table 17) p. 99.


Matthew Tirrell's presentation on the education of chemical engineers prompted dialogue on such topics as generating interest early in the educational curriculum and alternative programs, such as the five-year degree. Summer study and study abroad were also discussed.

Generating Interest in Science and Engineering

B.J. Evans, of the University of Michigan (retired), stated that globalization is not new and will take place. The focus of this workshop is to see that globalization takes place in such a way that there are some benefits to the country and that dislocations do not result from it. He pointed out that Tom Connelly distinguished between education and training. Companies can train and coach their employees to do the kinds of things they want. Education belongs in places where education is optimized. Only universities are optimized for the interactions between a younger person and an older person. The purpose of the university is to educate, not to make a profit; if that job is done well, the university has succeeded.

Engineers and chemists who start their curricula do not really know what their field is about. Things are taught that have nothing to do with chemistry. If chemistry were taught as the global enterprise that it is, there would be many more students of different orientations from those currently electing to do chemistry. The first year of chemistry should enable students to make informed decisions as to whether they want to continue to study the discipline. Once that decision has been made, the motivation to learn may be instilled. Once education is handled this way, there will be a difference in the orientation of students for learning languages, as well as their need to know how to use their higher-order skills.

Alternative Career Paths

Tyrone Mitchell, of the National Science Foundation (NSF), noted that many chemical engineers opt to go into marketing or management. He was not sure whether the chemical engineering profession sells itself very well with respect to what a person ought to do over a lifetime in chemical engineering. He also questioned whether undergraduate chemical engineering students get much research experience.

Tirrell thinks that chemical engineers may not explain potential career paths very well. At his institution, they try to do a lot of undergraduate research. It is attractive in engaging students. He said that at UCSB, about 30 percent of engineering graduates engage in research.

Changing Degree Programs

Ned Heindel, of Lehigh University, suggested following the model of the American Pharmaceutical Association and the American Association of Colleges of Pharmacy in choosing not to use the bachelor's degree as a gateway to becoming a pharmacist but instead implementing a doctorate in pharmacy. The transition was not easy; a number of universities tried to opt out and stay with a bachelor's degree.

Steven Buelow, of Los Alamos National Laboratory, mentioned that the Department of Chemistry at Northeastern University had decided to move aggressively to implement a five-year program. With participation in a cooperative program with industry, undergraduate chemistry majors already take five years to get their degree. With the possibility of an advanced degree or a professional master's, the degree would be much more attractive to undergraduate chemistry majors.

Karin Bartels, of Degussa, stated that Germany is determining whether to move in the opposite direction. Germany offers a five-year program but is leaning toward reducing it so that there will be master's and more bachelor's degrees. Germany feels that the degree takes too long but would like to include business management aspects and regulatory affairs in the chemical engineering degree or process engineering degree.

Mitchell brought up “3-2”, or dual degree, programs. The first three years provide a liberal arts degree, and the final two years provide the engineering education. Many of the students went on to get Ph.D.s. Mitchell recruited some of those young people for internships and found them to be very well spoken with good people skills. He questioned whether the five-year program mentioned in the presentation would have more mathematics and engineering courses or more liberal arts education where students become more well rounded.

Tirrell responded that the program he is proposing would cover more science courses. His point about five-year degrees was that it would solve the problem of not being able to fit courses into a four-year degree.

Bartels added that the “3-2” program is essentially a community-college track over three years, where industry experience is coordinated with coursework.

James Martin, of North Carolina State University, asked whether, if globalization is such an issue, there should be so much advocating for interdisciplinary centers. He said that often when a center gets created, such topics as bioengineering and nanotechnology get taken out of the core curriculum and placed in the center, creating a new discipline. When new ideas are encouraged in the core, there is probably more interdisciplinary education, which probably is better for globalization. Sometimes, the quest for centers has created a subdiscipline, such as bioengineering or nanotechnology. The new ideas have been taken out of the core and put into their own situation. From a global perspective of education, these ideas are needed, but they should somehow be dispersed into the core. However, Martin said that centers do provide more opportunities for internships, partnerships, and collaboration.

Tirrell agreed that establishing narrow specializations is dangerous, especially at the undergraduate level. He said, however, that centers aimed at interdisciplinary research may not have some of the same adverse influences as specialized departments.

Using Summertime

Robert Powell, of the University of California, Davis, asked whether the summer could be used with the existing curriculum to achieve the goals apparent from the workshop.

Tirrell felt that some changes would not be too difficult or revolutionary. Some require changing a mind-set or using current resources such as summertime. He said that the University of California is looking into year-round education, and he has been very enthusiastic about it, because he thinks it could provide some opportunities, so that the summer could be better used and the co-ops and internships could be staggered throughout the year. Simply investing the resources to make sure that engineering students have profitable professional summers would be a good idea.

Robert Grathwol, of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, reminded the participants that many students spend their summers earning money to pay for school the next fall. He said that if summer programs are instituted and are to succeed, the experience must be profitable.

Study Abroad

Donald Burland, of NSF, stated that if chemistry and chemical engineering are to be treated as professions, the whole person needs to be developed. The topic here is globalization, which implies that some time will be spent overseas during education. Most universities have a semester-abroad program for undergraduates, but frequently scientists cannot participate because they have laboratory courses and other constraints. He asked whether anyone knew of instances in which it is possible for a scientist or engineer to spend a semester abroad.

Thomas Chapman, of NSF, noted some examples of engineering schools' attempts to facilitate study abroad and international experience. NSF has at least two research experiences for undergraduate sites that have been funded in the last year.

This is an edited transcript of speaker and discussion remarks at the workshop. The discussions were edited and organized around major themes to provide a more readable summary.

Copyright © 2004, National Academy of Sciences.
Bookshelf ID: NBK83647


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