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Early outreach, big dreams leading more students to study engineering

Engineering professor, Sara Atwood, works with a pair of engineering students at Elizabethtown College in Elizabethtown. PHOTO/SUBMITTED

Educators in the region’s colleges and universities say they are seeing a steady growth in students interested in majoring in engineering disciplines, and the ones coming into their programs are showing more knowledge and have more hands-on experience than in the past.

Most see two main factors for the trend: 

First is the availability of engineering jobs and the salaries. Second, the years of pushing the idea of engineering careers and other STEM fields to the young set are starting to pay off.

The current starting salary projection for Class of 2020 engineering graduates is $69,961 per year, according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers. Those salaries can be earned in a variety of fields.

In Pennsylvania, a number engineering disciplines are in demand.

The Workforce Development Board of the Greater Lehigh Valley named civil engineers, mechanical engineers and industrial engineers as some of the most in-demand engineering fields. Demand for skills in drafting, engineering and mapping technologies is also very strong.

At Elizabethtown College, which has a prominent engineering program in Lancaster County, engineering professor, Sara Atwood, said the growth in engineering interest has been significant.

“In the last 10 years we have definitely had a huge increase in engineering enrollment. We are essentially at capacity for our program,” Atwood said.

She said the engineering degree gives them skills they can use in engineering jobs or even in finance or law careers.

At Penn State Lehigh Valley in Schnecksville, which has a two-year engineering program, Tracey Carbonetto, a lecturer of mechanical engineering, said the majority of students on campus are in some sort of an engineering program. Mechanical, industrial, civil, aerospace and biomedical are among the top being studied, she said.

“There’s a lot of different directions an engineering career can take you,” she said. “And there’s a promise of a good job market. They’re not going to toil away for four years and then get out of school and they can’t find a job.”

At Lehigh University in Bethlehem, which has one of nation’s top engineering programs, it’s harder to quantify an increase in demand, said Greg Tonkay, associate dean for academic affairs in the engineering college. Demand to get into Lehigh’s engineering program is always strong, he said.

“We tend not to see large changes in enrollment in engineering because the school tries to balance its enrollment in different programs,” Tonkay said.

He did note that the incoming students are coming with a level of know-how, hands-on experience and enthusiasm that he wasn’t seeing 10 years ago.

He credits scholastic STEM Programs for letting younger students experiment with engineering technologies and create real-world projects that go beyond basic academic lectures.

“There was a time prior to the STEM push, where students had no experience working with their hands,” Tonkay said. “Society as a whole doesn’t fix as much anymore, so there’s no tinkering. STEM started a bunch of activities that are hands on so they can decide if it’s something they want to do or not. 

Atwood said such programs have helped to increase women enrollment. 

“We’ve seen that the effects of such programs have doubled the percent of women in engineering and more people are being exposed to it at an earlier age,” Atwood said. “10 years ago people came in here and didn’t really know what engineering meant.”

Karen Buck, manager of workforce initiatives for the Manufacturers Resource Center of the Lehigh Valley, said there are many academic programs being developed throughout the state of Pennsylvania to expose younger people to opportunities in engineering from actual lesson plans that focus on engineering subjects to extracurricular efforts.

She pointed to the “What’s so Cool About Manufacturing” contests, which sends eighth grade students into manufacturers to create videos about their operations, as a popular program that began in Lehigh and Northampton counties seven years ago and is debuting in Central Pennsylvania this year.

There is also a “Dream Team” of recent engineering grads that go into schools to talk to school students about engineering opportunities.

“This is good because they’re getting to talk to people a little closer to their age,” Buck said.

Carbonetto said bio-medical fields and green technology are also attracting students that hope to use their education to shape a better world.

“In the bio-medical file all of these possibilities are becoming feasible,” she said. “These students have the option to do something that may be remarkable. They can have an impact on the world when they’re 22-23 years old.”

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