Troubling Trend: Addressing the Widening Engineering Gap

FIRST Robotics Competition hopes to spur interest in engineering

U.S. government and business leaders -- from the National Academy of Sciences to the National Association of Manufacturers -- have been sounding the alarm for greater innovation, as well as the education of the next generation of professionals who will help ensure the nation's prosperity, security and competitiveness.

They're not alone. Around the world, there is reason for concern, as many issues affecting human welfare and quality of life grow more pressing, and the solutions require the expertise of designers and engineers. For example:

  • U.S. infrastructure earned an overall grade of D from the American Society of Civil Engineers.
  • Asia's oil consumption will approach that of the United States -- the world's largest consumer -- by the end of 2020.
  • By the United Nations Population Fund's estimate, within months, nearly half the world's population will live in urban centers.

Job prospects are healthy for today's science and engineering students. According to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projections, students can expect scientific and engineering opportunities to continue to grow more rapidly than jobs in general (26% vs. 15% overall) through 2012.

But fewer students are entering these fields, and their skills are lacking. U.S. graduation rates for engineering students declined by 23% between 1985 and 2000, and today, Europe and Asia graduate three to five times as many engineers as the United States. The problem of fewer engineering students is compounded by poor performance in science, technology, engineering and math. Although more pupils took Advanced Placement exams in 2004, scores reported by the College Board show that performance mostly dropped -- sometimes dramatically -- compared to students who earned passing scores a decade ago.

Americans also continue to hold engineering in fairly low regard among a range of occupations. Harris polls show just a third of respondents consider engineering a prestigious occupation, a figure that has changed little or for the worse since 1977.

If the nation is unable to recruit and inspire the next generation of engineers, the future looks dim. The National Academy of Sciences frames the prospect in stark terms: "Without high-quality, knowledge-intensive jobs and innovative enterprises that lead to discovery and new technology, the nation's economy will suffer and citizens will face a lower standard of living."

As the space race of the '50s and '60s inspired a new commitment to science in the nation's classrooms and produced a new generation of scientists and engineers, energy woes, global climate change and a host of other recent concerns stand to motivate the millennial generation and spark the next technological revolution, helping address the widening youth engineering gap.

Autodesk and FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology), are two organizations helping champion this revolution by inspiring enthusiasm for science and technology to train the next generation of design professionals for the important mission ahead. For 17 years, Autodesk has worked with FIRST to offer accessible, innovative programs to build self-confidence, knowledge, and life skills while motivating young people to pursue opportunities in science, technology, engineering and math.

Founded by renowned inventor Dean Kamen to strengthen the nation's technologically literate workforce, FIRST hosts more than 37,000 students and mentors in the FIRST Robotics Competition -- a unique varsity sport of the mind designed to help high school-aged people discover how interesting and rewarding the life of engineers and designers can be.

The FIRST Robotics Competition challenges teams of high school students and their adult mentors to solve a common problem in a six-week timeframe using a standard kit of parts and a common set of rules. This year, the competition welcomed more than 1,500 student teams from seven countries and every state in the U.S. to compete in 41 regional events. Regional winners advanced to the FIRST Championship held last month at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta, attended by more than 20,000 spectators, including Google co-founder Larry Page.

Autodesk, through its support of the FIRST Robotics Competition, has provided students with more than $106 million over a period of 17 in advanced digital design and engineering software and is working hand-in-hand with students to help them jumpstart their careers in science and technology. And so far, the results are staggering. According to a recent study by Brandeis University, FIRST students are:

  • Three times as likely to major specifically in engineering
  • More than twice as likely to pursue a career in science and technology
  • Nearly four times as likely to pursue a career specifically in engineering
  • More than twice as likely to volunteer in their communities

Paul Mailhot is senior director of Worldwide Education Programs for Autodesk. He leads a team dedicated to supporting educators in preparing the next generation of design professionals. Autodesk serves industries including -- building, manufacturing, infrastructure, and digital media. Autodesk provides solutions for sustainable design, digital prototyping, and the creation of visual media. www.autodesk.com

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