Purdue News

February 2005

A monthly letter from President Martin C. Jischke

Purdue's College of Engineering is one of the largest and best engineering education programs in the world, so we take National Engineers Week seriously in West Lafayette.

This year there was plenty to celebrate during the Feb. 21-25 observance, which featured a variety of events, including a discussion by a blue-ribbon panel on the role of engineering in national security. John Sununu, former White House chief of staff, moderated the panel, which included former Iraq nuclear weapons inspector David Kay.

A pleasant surprise came on Feb. 23 when the National Academy of Engineering announced it was awarding its prestigious Gordon Prize for Innovation in Engineering and Technology Education to three Purdue engineering professors. Leah Jamieson, Edward Coyle and William Oakes were recognized for founding and advancing Engineering Projects in Community Service – one of the most successful service-education programs in the country. EPICS harnesses the talents of students from engineering and other disciplines to solve real-world problems, resulting in both community benefits and unique educational opportunities. Since its founding at Purdue in 1995, EPICS has become a growing national movement. Fourteen other universities have created chapters based on the Purdue model.

Although the Gordon Prize comes with a cash award of $500,000 that normally would have been divided between the recipients and their institution, the three Purdue faculty members made a remarkably generous gesture. Instead of taking the money they would have received personally, they redirected it to support the EPICS program, accepting only enough to cover their travel expenses to the award ceremony in Washington, D.C.

Just a few days before the EPICS announcement, Leah Jamieson and her colleague in the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering, David Landgrebe, learned that they were among 74 newly elected members of the National Academy of Engineering. This is one of the highest forms of recognition an engineer can receive. Their selection brings the number of Purdue academy members to 17.

As an engineer, I may not be completely objective on the topic, but I believe the future of our nation is linked firmly to the quality and quantity of engineers we will educate in this century. Purdue graduate Neil Armstrong explained it exactly when he said that engineering "is a profession which leaves its imprint on our society in countless ways.

"The evolution of popular culture, politics, and business has given us a world that is vastly different from that of our grandparents, and engineering has played a significant role in those changes," Neil said. Unfortunately, trends in recent years indicate that America is not doing a good job of preparing a new generation of engineers or other professionals in science-based careers.

In a report entitled "Science and Engineering Indicators 2004," the National Science Board noted: "We have observed a troubling decline in the number of U.S. citizens who are training to become scientists and engineers, whereas the number of jobs requiring science and engineering training continues to grow." The Science Board cited a decline in the number of degrees issued in these fields, increasing retirements and the effect of immigration restrictions as factors in something that I believe is a developing crisis for our country. Other nations – especially the expanding economies of Asia – are placing strong emphasis on science and engineering. If the United States fails to recognize this challenge, it could lose its leadership in science and technology, which would undermine its economic and political strength.

What can we do? The first and most basic step is to strengthen our public school systems, not only academically, but also in terms of providing the guidance that allows young people to recognize the rewards and excitement of careers in these fields. Decisions made by children in middle school determine whether they will be prepared to study science and engineering at the university level. Today's middle school students will not begin to enter the work force for another decade, and advanced degrees – which will be needed by many – will take much longer to acquire.

One of the most effective steps our nation can take in addressing this challenge is to focus on preparing more women for these careers. Purdue has been one of America's most successful universities in the preparation of women engineers. Since the establishment of the Women in Engineering program in 1969, the number of females studying engineering has grown from a handful each year to 25 percent of the degrees granted. This is tremendous progress, but we can do much better. Women like Leah Jamieson; Linda Katehi, the dean of Purdue Engineering; and Provost Sally Mason, a distinguished biologist, are proof that women rise to the highest levels of science and engineering when given encouragement and opportunity.

As a nation, we have the resources and the people to meet this growing challenge. All we need now is the motivation.


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