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Sept. 25, 2007 – The University of Utah is launching a new five-year, $2 million effort to recruit and retain more engineering students from high schools and community colleges, expanding on the success already created by the Utah Engineering Initiative.

“We’re hoping this money will bring more students who are excited about engineering and the opportunities it provides,” says Cindy Furse, who leads the project and is a professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Utah.

“Our engineering students have made a huge impact on the state’s economy,” she adds. “Many of our engineers start companies. A small company that starts today eventually may have 20, 30 or more jobs. That’s how we build this state and keep our kids here with valuable jobs to do.”

Furse received a five-year, $2 million National Science Foundation grant for the outreach and recruitment project, which began Sept. 1. She says that the goal is to recruit enough high school and community college students so that five years from now, the number of engineering undergraduate degrees at the University of Utah will reach 540 undergraduates per year, which is 180 more than the 360 who graduated in 2007.

The number already has increased from 295 in 2000, thanks largely to the Utah Engineering Initiative. 

“Utah industry is hungry for more engineering graduates,” says Richard Brown, dean of the University of Utah College of Engineering and a professor of electrical and computer engineering. “A high priority for the College of Engineering is communicating to elementary through high school students what great opportunities there are in engineering. And Professor Furse’s program is perfectly aligned with that goal.”

The new effort includes a variety of outreach methods to recruit new engineering students and try to keep the recruits at the university:

  • Thirty-five University of Utah and Salt Lake Community College engineering students are being hired part-time so that, starting in November, they will visit area high schools with what Furse calls “cool, hands-on science and engineering demos.” The effort will build on the existing Engineering Ambassadors project, which now sends five to 10 university students into high schools each year.

“We are looking at the strong possibility of starting a student business to mass produce these demonstrations for schools and businesses – in and out of Utah,” says Furse. “And we are seeking high school student volunteers to join teams of university students, faculty, high school teachers and industrial mentors to design these demos for use in the high schools.”

  • The university will establish a summer Engineering Camp for high school students.
  • All departments in the university’s College of Engineering will hold a joint Engineering Day for high school students (grades 9 through 12), parents, counselors, teachers and alumni at the new Warnock Engineering Building from 9 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 20.
  • The university will work to initiate introduction-to-engineering courses at more high schools. The university already offers freshman Engineering LEAP (Learning, Engagement, Achievement, Progress) – a one-year introductory course that includes mentoring, learning about engineering as a profession, writing and presentation skills. But Furse says she would like a similar program to be available at Utah’s two-year colleges.
  • Among University of Utah engineering undergraduates, only 10 percent are women and 4 percent are ethnic minorities. Efforts will be made to recruit more women and minorities, particularly Hispanics, and get them involved in real engineering projects so “more will decide to join us,” says Furse.
  • Engineering faculty members, College of Engineering officials, older students and industry mentors will provide much better counseling and mentoring “to be sure students get into the right program in the first place,” says Furse, noting the effort already is underway.
  • A for-credit “service learning program” will be started, in collaboration with the U’s Bennion Center, so “freshman engineers will go out to the community – hospitals, community centers, centers for people with disabilities, homeless shelters – and find things engineers can do to help them,” Furse says.

Examples, she adds, include engineering students designing and building “devices to help handicapped people ski, ride horses, swim, use the computer and anything else people like to do.”

“Engineers build things that help people, and students will be doing this throughout their entire college education,” says Furse. “We think they will enjoy engineering a lot more when they know what engineers really do and get to experience it – instead of just doing book learning.”

The grant to Furse is part of a National Science Foundation program to increase the number of U.S. college graduates in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

The Utah Engineering Initiative has its roots in 2000, when then-Gov. Mike Leavitt challenged Utah’s state universities and colleges to double the number of engineering and computer science graduates. Adding another 180 engineering graduates per year would put the University of Utah quite close to achieving that goal.

The number of students receiving master’s degrees in engineering at the U. also has increased, from 79 in 2000 to 197 in 2007. The number earning doctorates has remained fairly stable, from 47 in 2000 to 50 in 2007.

Furse says that from its inception in 2002 through the end of fiscal year 2006, the initiative spent more than $10 million to bolster engineering enrollments at Utah’s universities and colleges. Of that, about $4 million came to the University of Utah. She believes that investment helped her procure the $2 million grant from the National Science Foundation.

“When a state starts putting money into a program like engineering, the rest of the nation notices,” she says. “And the support that the College of Engineering has had from our legislators and governors has been critical to getting this kind of federal support to expand their vision.”

Furse isn’t shy about pitching the merits of an engineering career.

“If you want to give your kid the best opportunity in the world, get your kid into engineering because the jobs are great, the stuff is fun and the people you work with are awesome,” she says. “If you want to be able to work from home, start your own business, work part days or whole days, you can do what you want to do with an engineering degree.”

Furse says students and teachers from high schools and community colleges should contact her if they are interested in participating in any aspect of the program.