Figure 1. While traditional fields still dominate, respondents came from 27 different industrial sectors. (Click to enlarge).
So, how well prepared were these young engineers? The focus of the survey was not so much on the specific technical content of their courses but more on the general skills and abilities needed for a career as an engineer. The young engineers ranked highly being able to work well in a team, analyze information, communicate effectively, gather information, self-learn and solve problems all the soft skills identified by Carroll.
Refreshingly, when asked to rank the quality of the education received in these and other areas, the respondents came up with a very similar list, but with some notable exceptions. Topping the list of the best-taught skills, for example, was the ability to apply knowledge of basic science and chemical engineering fundamentals, with an appreciation of the potential of research not far behind. Now both of these have long been the traditional priorities of a classical university education, yet the young engineers placed them far down their list of priorities for what would best prepare them for a career.
So perhaps young engineers are well aware of that perceived lack of preparedness picked up by the CP survey. Do the universities share this perception? While no chemical engineering department would admit to sending its graduates out into the world ill-prepared for a career in industry, the changing roles and work patterns of chemical engineers have prompted many schools to start taking stock of how they actually teach chemical engineering and just what form the subject might take in the future.
In 2002, the Council for Chemical Research (CCR), Washington, D.C., held a Chemical Engineering Leadership Workshop, hosted by Steve Miller, CEO of Shell North America, at which many of the arguments for a change in the direction of chemical engineering education were put forward. The consensus according to the summary report was that an understanding of modern molecular biology is vital to the success of future chemical engineers. However, the workshop participants acknowledged that this would call for a major revision of the education given to undergraduates but with that revision would also come the opportunity to revitalize all aspects of the curriculum.
That revitalization is still very much a work in progress, as the program for the upcoming AIChE annual meeting in San Francisco (Nov. 12-17) points up. More than 20 papers are scheduled on tuning the chemical engineering curriculum to meet new challenges and the demands of the job, with eight alone concentrating on the freshman year.
A similar focus on curriculum change was seen at the July 2005 World Congress of Chemical Engineering in Glasgow, Scotland. Although we are clearly interested in students learning fundamental technical knowledge, we are also interested in improving less quantifiable outcomes, such as the ability to think critically and work effectively with uncertainty; to demonstrate effective teamwork and communication skills, said Congress chair Colin Grant of the department of chemical and process engineering at Glasgows Strathclyde University.
While his comments underscore that the issues facing chemical engineering education apply worldwide, Grant specifically highlighted the current work in the U.S. academic community, including the Frontiers in Chemical Engineering Education initiative being run under the auspices of the CCR and with funding from the National Science Foundation. The academics and industrialists behind that initiative have hosted several more workshops in recent years. They envision a future curriculum that will move away from the traditional unit-operations approach and be organized along the lines of molecular processes, multiscale analysis, and systems analysis and synthesis a set of organizing principles or ways to arrange the subject matter of chemical engineering.
Work continues on Frontiers and it might take many years to achieve its goals, but the early signs are promising. The curriculum is already changing dramatically, says Bob Kumpf, vice president of future business for Bayer MaterialScience, Pittsburgh, Pa. Top chemical engineering programs are now doing tissue engineering, white biotech [for industrial processes], green biotech [for agriculture] and red biotech [for medical purposes]. What were seeing is a situation where the top universities have already made these changes, and I think their premise is correct. A chemical engineering department thats stuck in just teaching unit operations is going to be left behind. We need to go beyond the roots of the typical engineering program.
Just how far the colleges are prepared to go remains to be seen, but the bio connection is certainly leading the way. Bio is hot, agrees Phil Wankat, professor of chemical engineering at Purdue University, West Lafayette, Ind., and head of the universitys interdisciplinary engineering division. Most agricultural engineering departments put bio somewhere in their names several years ago. That was considered a survival issue. But will there be more [chemical engineering] jobs if students have a smattering of bio? I doubt it. Will there be more students? Probably. Will students be better prepared for a 40-year technical career if they understand bio as well as chemistry and physics? Of course they will, but you can require a biology course in the curriculum without changing the department name.
We will have to wait to see whether any of the proposed curriculum changes can reverse the trend of fewer students opting for engineering. However, Wankat, for one, is not sure that schools can boost enrolment by themselves. We found out in the 1970s that an individual university or even a group of universities can do very little to change popular trends. I think universities and companies and government working together need to show how engineers help people live better lives.
This is certainly one of the goals of Bayers Making Science Make Sense (MSMS) educational program, which aims to improve the general levels of science literacy among pre-college schoolchildren. At the heart of the program, says Pittsburgh-based Sarah Toulouse, who oversees the initiative, is Bayers national volunteer corps of more than 1,000 employees across the spectrum of science and engineering. In the end, its about two things nurturing the next generation of chemical and other engineers and scientists, while at the same time creating a generation of individuals who can read a science-related article in a newspaper and understand it, vote responsibly on an environmental issue, or just prepare a nutritionally sound meal for their family.
Mae Jemison, national spokesperson for MSMS, started her own career with a chemical engineering degree before going to medical school and then becoming the nations first African-American female astronaut. Now CEO of medical-devices company BioSentient, Houston, she says that while many CEOs are rightly concerned about the dwindling numbers of scientists and engineers coming out of colleges, a good proportion have not yet fully made the connection between the potential manpower shortage and the potential untapped talent pool that exists in those individuals who are still not well represented in these fields.
Wankat sums up the problem precisely. If we can become more attractive to under-represented groups and to women, he says, there will be no shortage of engineers. Easier said than done, perhaps, but Bayers Kumpf thinks one of the most effective ways for universities to address the imbalance is through outreach programs school visits, scholarships and awards, anything that engages kids in those formative years when they are deciding what they are really interested in. The bottom line, he says, is that if universities focus simply on recruiting more high-school senior girls and minorities into science and engineering, its already too late. The kids have already made their choice universities need to engage students earlier.
By considering curriculum changes, chemical engineering departments are showing their willingness to engage with the changing demands of employers. Engaging with the other end of the supply chain might be just as profitable to the profession in the long run.