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Monday, November 23, 2009

Dear Mr. Bradshaw -- I'm a female and I'm struggling to decide on a major when I apply to college. My family believes engineering is my best choice. I'm not so sure.

I am very good at math and science, but I also like to solve practical problems that are more down to earth. My female friends in college are disappointed that most of their engineering classes are too theoretical and not hands-on enough.

My dad and uncle are engineers with advanced degrees from MIT and the Georgia Institute of Technology. So there is pressure for me to continue the family tradition and become an engineer.

I'm a junior in high school, but I think I am more interested in business as a major. How do I decide what is right for me? I hope you have some insight. -- Engineering or business?

Choosing an Engineering Major In College



Dear Engineering -- First, a short history to place your question in context. A few years ago, most engineering students came from blue-collar families. Most engineers were the first members of their families to earn college degrees.

Typically, the father was a skilled worker, such as a machinist or electrician, who saw becoming an engineer as a ticket off the shop floor and into management. Now that the economy has slowed, engineering again is starting to appeal to students, as job security takes on a higher priority. But this time, parents of engineering majors are less likely to be found on the factory floor and more likely to be in management at high-tech companies such as Google or Microsoft.

Today's engineers own and manage several of the most important companies in America. But I must offer a caveat and point out that along with geniuses such as Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, the owners of Google also dropped out of engineering programs (Stanford) that were too restrictive and stifled their vision on how to change the world.

Engineers are at the forefront of a revolution, and many engineering programs resist change. An old saying suggests most professors wished Gates had stayed at Harvard and earned his degree. Life would have been much easier for them.

Your concern that engineering majors are too narrowly focused on theoretical problems and not getting enough hands-on experience is well-documented. There seems to be a gap between course work and the real world of engineering. Perhaps that has something to do with why Gates and others left college before graduating. Engineering schools are slow to change.

The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and the National Science Foundation reported in the Chronicle of Higher Education that "engineering education's widespread emphasis on theory over practice at many of the nation's 1,740 college-level engineering programs discourages many potential students, while leaving graduates with too little exposure to real-world problems."

The report concluded "engineering programs aren't meeting the needs of students or employers who want a more relevant curriculum."

The two areas most resistant to change are engineering faculties and accreditation agencies. Both seek to reinforce old habits and justify staying with the old curricula. Millions of dollars have been given to universities to diversify their engineering curricula, but have failed to get past the "cultural issues of change," said Sheri Sheppard, vice provost of graduate education at Stanford.

One happy exception is Georgia Tech's biotechnology engineering program. The problem-based approach taken by Tech allows students to take a semester to work on practical problems. One such program focuses on how to keep the blood supply safe from the AIDS virus.

One important benefit of the hands-on approach to engineering is, it attracts more women who normally would not consider it as a career. The breakdown of enrollment in biomedical engineering at Georgia Tech is revealing: 39 percent females, compared to 9 percent in electrical and computer engineering, and 12 percent in mechanical engineering.

I suggest that engineering is a great major, as long as you do your research beforehand.

Georgia Tech and programs like it are places to think about when you apply.

Gerald M. Bradshaw of Crown Point consults with students on how to gain admission to selective colleges, universities and law schools. He can be reached at www.bradshawcollegeconsulting.com or by calling (219) 663-3041.

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