Industry to students: Engineering is cool

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Ohio State Associate Professor Emeritus of Engineering, Gary Maul discusses first year engineering program at Ohio State Marion.

Written by Kurt Moore as published in The Marion Star
Saturday, December 17, 2011

MARION - Educators and industries are working together in a common pursuit. They want more students to consider majoring in engineering.

Their attempts are largely geared around making it sound cool.

That can be seen through such events as the TRECA Marion Area VEX Robotics Qualifier held recently. It is also behind a push to educate students about what engineers actually do.

Their target? Students like Tri-Rivers Career Center senior Kelsea Sullivan, who is honing her skills by competing and who already has her mind set on engineering.

The push is coming as educators and industry leaders warn the United States is facing a shortage of engineers. Gary Maul, an associate professor emeritus teaching engineering at The Ohio State University at Marion, remembers when he was in seventh grade and President John Kennedy pushed the importance of space exploration.

"There was a huge push for science and engineering," he said.

Now many of the baby boomers who went into the field to answer his call are retiring. It has led to shortages in aerospace defense work as well as in other areas. There are concerns there aren't enough youth considering engineering to fill the void.

Intel President and CEO Paul Otellini has stated in media reports that China and India are outpacing the United States in the percentage of engineers graduating. Statistics from the President's Council on Jobs and Competitiveness, which Otellini co-chairs, show that about 120,000 engineering students graduate a year compared to about a million a year in China and India.

Vivek Wadhwa, a tech entrepreneur and researcher, stated in a Washington Post opinion piece that the data is flawed because of different definitions of "engineering." He agreed, though, that many American children aren't interested in engineering, and top engineering graduates often choose other professions.

Local efforts to change this include robotics competitions. Most school districts host some sort of robotics program. Marion County 4-H offers a LEGO version. Educators hope students will get hooked and consider what careers are available.

Sullivan's a believer.

"I've always liked math, solving problems," she said. "I like the computer engineering aspect. I live on my computer."

There also are efforts to make math fun, such as the recent Marion Mathematics Challenge on the Marion Campus.

Asked why more students aren't considering various engineering studies, Tri-Rivers engineering instructor Ritch Ramey said because it's strenuous and takes a lot of math, science and problem solving.

"It takes a special person to be a problem solver," he said. "You've got to be able to focus and sit down and see a problem through. Got to be willing to adapt."

Intel interviewed 1,004 teens with computer access to study their perceptions of engineering. The survey found many have positive opinions about engineering but few consider it because they perceive it as too difficult.

Forty-one percent associated engineering with the word "difficult" while 12 percent used the word "cool."

Slightly more than a quarter of teens interviewed had considered a career in engineering.

Solutions suggested by the survey included teaching students more about what engineering is. About 44 percent said more information on engineering might make teens consider engineering.

Possibilities include teaching them that engineering majors make an average yearly income of $75,000 after graduation.

Intel suggested there's also a "cool" factor. Sound engineers design the acoustics for the music teens hear. Engineers design the roller coasters they ride. Engineers make driving, text-messaging and social media possible.

"Being an engineer is really interesting," said Jeff Garlock, associate chief engineer at Honda of America Manufacturing, Inc., as he talked about changing students' mindset. "It's a very dynamic area to go into. It's very tech, cutting edge."

Maul agreed that increasing exposure in high school could help. He talked about how TV shows have lawyers and police as characters but not engineers.

Outreach includes efforts to draw more females and minorities. Garlock said this diversity of opinions is needed, including when products are developed. He included as an example how Honda's CRV was designed with enough room in the console to hold handbags. Such views show what women can bring to the planning table.

"They too can be really successful," said Dave Wagner, dean of engineering technologies at Marion Technical Center.

"It's for everybody, not just the guys," he said of engineering.

The Marion Campus continues efforts to draw students into the field.

Wagner said Marion Technical College's alternative energy program is "really taking off" as the focus increases on wind, solar and geothermal energies. Its electrical engineering programs are strong, as are its mechanical engineering and electrical utilities programs.

Ohio State Marion hired Maul this year as it launched a first-year engineering program so students can take two of the early engineering courses on campus. The initiative focused on helping local students start out in Marion and save some money rather than immediately having to go to the main campus in Columbus.

Students in Marion's first Engineering 181 course learned about 3D computer modeling, built solar meters and used fuel cells. They also built bridges with 50 grams of balsa wood that were capable of holding more than 70 pounds.

"We've had really good interest," Maul said, crediting some of it with Marion County's strong history of manufacturing.

Engineering 181 and 183 will be offered winter quarter. Ohio State Marion is preparing to introduce sophomore-level classes next school year.

Tri-Rivers also offers engineering classes, including engineering technology.

Reporter Kurt Moore: 740-375-5151 or