A majority of high school students in the United States have only a vague idea of what engineers do, what their jobs prospects are, and how much money they make. Perhaps as a consequence, too few students prepare themselves adequately to succeed in college engineering programs, says a 2011 study by Intel Corporation.
That's unfortunate news, especially in light of the fact that the United States is falling behind developing nations in producing graduates in science and engineering fields.
"In 2008, U.S. students earned 4 percent of the world's engineering degrees, while 56 percent were awarded in Asia, including one-third in China," wrote Education Week blogger Caralee Adams, in a report on the National Science Board study. "The number of natural-science and engineering degrees in China went from 280,000 annually to 1 million between 2000 and 2008. South Korea, Taiwan, and Japan together produced 330,000 graduates in these fields in 2008, compared with 248,000 in the United States, even though the U.S. population was considerably larger (300 million versus 200 million for those countries combined)."
Without excellent preparation in high school, though, college students struggle to complete engineering degrees in high school, said in an article in Today's Engineer magazine.
"The retention rate for engineering students across the United States has traditionally hovered around 50 percent," the article said. "We could roughly double the number of engineering degrees awarded annually in the United States by simply providing adequate preparation and background for the students who enter engineering programs in college."
That means starting early to build deep student understanding of mathematics, science and engineering principles. Giving students clearer incentives for tackling rigorous course work in these areas can help.
The 2011 survey commissioned by Intel Corporation found that American high school students' general lack of familiarity with the engineering profession keeps them from considering engineering careers and preparing themselves to succeed in collegiate engineering programs.
"Roughly 60 percent of teens are more likely to consider engineering after learning about the career's earning potential," said Intel's report on the survey. "The majority of teens are also influenced by understanding what engineers do — such as playing a role in rescuing the Chilean miners who were trapped in 2010; delivering clean water to poor communities in Africa; designing the protective pads worn by athletes; and constructing dams and levees that keep entire cities safe."
Nurturing interest in engineering in high school, and even earlier, is critical to building numbers of students poised to succeed in collegiate engineering programs, the report said. Offering teens more hands-on engineering experiences and interaction with engineers through robotics programs and science competitions improves chances that they will pursue the subject in college.
Findings of the Intel survey:
Sixty-three percent of teens have never considered a career in engineering.
Twenty-nine percent of teens do not know of potential job opportunities in engineering and 13 percent don't think majoring in engineering in college will lead to any more job opportunities than any other career.
Sixty-one percent of teens are more likely to consider engineering careers after learning engineers make an average annual income of $75,000 and have an unemployment rate 4 percentage points lower than the national rate.
Intel suggests that parents and teachers can help students consider engineering careers by:
Reframing the difficulty of engineering classes as a positive challenge.
Making engineering feel less remote and more personal by giving a face to engineers.
Up-weighting the emotional appeal of engineering by stressing the benefits of what engineers do, such as preventing disasters or generating cleaner electricity.