Engineering is an important degree essential to both the country’s infrastructure and technological advancement, and now that the economy is recovering, it’s a better time than ever to attain a degree in the field. To learn more about what Engineering majors study, why they’re important, and what different programs offer, we sat down with two Deans of Engineering at major universities to gain their insights and advice.
Dr. Candis Claiborn, Washington State University
Dr. Candis Claiborn has been Dean of the College of Engineering and Architecture since 2006 and is one of just a few women engineering deans in the U.S. As dean, she has contributed to the growth of the college through several successful initiatives. She is a co-Principal investigator on a $3.75 million, NSF ADVANCE grant that aims to increase representation and advancement of faculty women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. The grant is developing new strategies for faculty recruitment, retention, and advancement. She is also principal investigator on a Department of Education grant to establish a program for recruitment, promotion, and advancement of women in science and engineering. During her tenure as dean, several scholarships for women in engineering fields have been established.
Dr. Claiborn joined the WSU faculty in 1991 and is a well-known researcher in the area of air quality. She served as the college’s associate dean of research and graduate programs from 2002 to 2005. At WSU, she has collaborated with researchers in the Laboratory for Atmospheric Research to study atmospheric-biospheric interactions of trace gases. She also developed a research program in atmospheric aerosols, in which she collaborates with colleagues in the Laboratory for Atmospheric Research, as well as others in the School of Public Health at the University of Washington, the Chemistry Department at Eastern Washington University, and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.
Dr. Claiborn has received several teaching awards in her department, including Outstanding Teaching Faculty in Civil Engineering in 1994, the Leon Luck Faculty Award for the Most Effective Professor in Civil and Environmental Engineering in 1998, the Outstanding Teaching Faculty in Civil Engineering in 1999 and the Richard Crain Faculty Award for Distinction in Ethics Teaching in 2003.
Dr. Claiborn received her B.S. in Chemical Engineering from the University of Idaho in 1980. After graduation, she worked in the petroleum industry for Chevron and then for Atlantic Richfield Corporation. She returned to college at North Carolina State University, where she received her Ph.D. in Chemical Engineering.
Dr. Barbara Boyan, Virginia Commonwealth University
Dr. Barbara Boyan is Professor and the William H. and Alice T. Goodwin Chair in Biomedical Engineering and Dean, School of Engineering at the Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, VA. In addition, she is professor emerita in the Wallace H. Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering at Georgia Tech and Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. Dr. Boyan directs the Virginia branch of the FDA-sponsored Atlantic Pediatric Device Consortium. She is a Fellow in the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and in the American Institute of Mechanical and Biomedical Engineering (AIMBE) and in 2012 she was elected to the National Academy of Engineering and was inducted into the Fellows of the World Congress of Biomaterials. She was appointed to the National Materials Advisory Board of the National Research Council of the National Academies and chaired their Roundtable on Biomedical Engineering Materials and Applications from 2008 to 2011. She has founded a number of biomedical technology companies and currently serves on the Boards of both public and private companies. The author of more than 400 peer-reviewed papers, reviews, and book chapters, Dr. Boyan holds 15 U.S. patents.
1. Why are engineers integral to the American economy and infrastructure? What would happen without them?
The vibrancy of our economy is dependent on the quality of jobs and its continuing potential for sustained and steady growth. Engineers innovate and create the next generation of technologies that drive economic growth. They design and then improve our infrastructure – our roads, bridges, highways, even the information highway – to enable the economy to grow. Without engineers, our manufacturing, electronics, information, health care, and other sectors of the economy would falter – innovation would slow, and our nation’s competitiveness would suffer.
Engineers are the problem solvers of American industry and infrastructure. They tackle problems by reducing the issues to their component parts, and then develop solutions using first principles. This approach is used when inventing new technologies to address specific needs and when addressing problems in manufacturing products, building bridges and highways, or ensuring security of the Internet. Engineers do work that is fundamental to our economy at every level.
2. Do you believe modern engineers are more important to technological innovation or infrastructure? Why?
That’s a difficult question – modern engineers are equally important to both, and both are equally important to economic well-being and competitiveness.
I don’t think that the contribution of engineers is more important to one area of our economy over another. Their role is so fundamental to how things work, that it is impossible to ascribe value in this way. While technological innovation may not be driven by engineers in all cases, it is engineers that make things work, who can translate an idea into a usable product. My own experience as an inventor is a good example of this. Early in my scientific career, I began to think about how to make materials that would help cartilage defects heal more effectively. I thought that technologies available at that time lacked properties that would encourage cartilage cells to do their job better and one of those properties was a mechanical environment similar to what they would have in real cartilage. I discussed this with a mechanical engineer, Dr. Kyriacos Athanasiou, who told me that he could figure out how to make such a material. Together we began a start-up company that went on to manufacture the innovative implants that we designed. We recognized that patients and surgeons would want the assurance that the implants were made safely and dependably, so that they could rely on the final product to be the same every time. This was most definitely the work of many different kinds of engineers, each responsible for a specific piece of the puzzle. I am very proud to say that the device we first envisioned is now available for use in patients because of the careful work of engineers.
3. How has the job market changed through the Great Recession for the engineering sector?
During the Great Recession, there was a dip in demand for engineers and computer scientists, however jobs were still available and our graduates were able to land good jobs. You have to realize that the decrease in jobs was a dip from very high demand to demand! I believe engineering is, was, and remains a great career path with lots of opportunities for students that are willing to work hard.
As is the case with many aspects of our economy, the kinds of jobs have changed with time. A solid training in an engineering discipline positions people well to meet these kinds of challenges. More positions are available with engineers who have expertise in computer programming, but recently I have noticed an upsurge in interest in engineers who have expertise in all aspects of manufacturing, including industrial engineering.
4. Which engineering disciplines are most in demand in the market?
That is somewhat regional. In this region of the country, there is especially high demand for computer scientists and engineers. Mechanical and electrical engineers are perennially in high demand here as well. I don’t mean to imply, however, that some of our disciplines are in low demand – there are good jobs for engineers of all disciplines!
Mechanical, electrical and computer engineering and computer science are in high demand, but chemical engineers are still needed and there is a growing need for biomedical engineers. Right now, it is good to be an engineer, particularly if one has had international experience.
5. Which engineering careers do most students move into?
Most students go to work for large corporations in microelectronics, aerospace, power, computer science, energy processing, and construction. A typical entry-level job might be as a project engineer or process engineer.
Students with engineering degrees have opportunities in a variety of fields, not just traditional engineering. Many students go on to earn MBA’s as they move into business. Others pursue law school, medical and dental school, and of course graduate school. For those that enter the working world after graduation, most join companies that do different kinds of manufacturing or software design.
6. Why do you think high school students should study engineering?
High school students need to take advantage of their opportunities by taking as much math and science as possible. Then, if they have room in their curriculum, and engineering or computer science courses are available, they might consider taking them.
Engineering is demanding, but it is one of the best ways to get a solid education that can lead to a job right after school and is a springboard for further advancement.
7. What does your school specialize in regards to engineering?
We pride ourselves in offering an undergraduate experience with lots of hands-on opportunities, and for those students who take advantage of those opportunities, our vision is to prepare them to be work-ready, from day one. Undergraduate research opportunities are available so our students are able to work in a face-to-face environment with some of the greatest engineers and computer scientists in the country. Outside of the classroom, our active student clubs provide leadership opportunity as well as creative outlet!
VCU provides engineering education in biomedical engineering, chemical and life sciences engineering, computer science, electrical and computer engineering, and mechanical and nuclear engineering. Because we are a sister school of VCU’s School of Medicine and School of Dentistry, our students have the opportunity to develop engineering skills that have application to the growing health care industry. Our Mechanical and Nuclear Engineering program is one of only two in the nation and is highly regarded for its research activities related to power and energy.
8. Why should students apply to your school?
We offer a world-class education in a residential environment. Our faculty is engaged in state-of-the-art research that enables a vibrant setting, yet our programs retain a face-to-face feel. It’s the best of all worlds, in my opinion!
VCU is an exciting place to be. We have one of the most diverse student bodies in the Commonwealth and our faculty value undergraduate education. Our students are able to be involved in cutting edge research from the beginning of their freshman year. I cannot imagine a better experience than is available in our School of Engineering.
Article submitted by Career Glider