Chemical Engineering Students: Stay the course!

Part of the problem of not getting enough university graduates in STEM fields is the unfortunate fact that a number of students initially enrolled in such courses change their minds and switch to other majors, most often to Liberal Arts. An article in the Education supplement in last Sunday’s New York Times was an eye-opener. Entitled “Why Science Majors Change Their Minds (It’s Just So Darn Hard)”, the article quotes a professor at U.C.L.A.” We’re losing an alarming proportion of our nation’s science talent once the students get to college”.

Tough freshman classes, typically followed by two years of fairly abstract courses, leading to a senior research or design project, appear to be an important reason, according to an engineering professor who recently retired from the University of Illinois. Another reason most likely is that average grades in college engineering and mathematics courses are lower than grades in Education, Langauge and English courses. (At Wake Forest, for a target decade, average grade averages in the former were 2.80 versus 3.35). This obviously has a number of implications.

Statistics compiled by the National Center for Education Statistics show that over the last 30 years, the percentage of engineering degrees has dropped in half, and the same for computer science degrees. Biology degrees awarded has stayed about the same. But universities are working on reversing this trend. At Notre Dame, the engineering school has improved its retention of engineering students from 50 to over 75% percent by “creating design projects for freshmen and breaking a ‘deadly’ lecture into smaller groups.”

All of this is very relevant to one of my main themes: graduating more chemical engineers to go into industry. Obviously, every chemical engineering department is aware of the retention problem and deals with it in their own way, recognizing that a sound grounding in a number of difficult courses is sine qua non. What I hope to do is to infuse Chem. E. students with the excitement of a career in the chemical and energy industries and, not least, the financial rewards that can come from rising in the ranks of corporations that serve these industries.

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