I was about to write up my periodic "rant" on the decline of graduates in electrical and mechanical engineering in the U.S. The number of BS degrees in these disciplines peaked at 40,000 in 86/87.
Then I pulled data from the National Center for Education Statistics. Apparently I am way behind on my reading, as the number of degrees granted in mechanical engineering in the most recent year data is available (06/07) is up 27 percent since 01/02. Moreover, the total is now almost back to the peak of 16,794 in 84/85.
While the news was somewhat of a surprise to me, Dr. Ben G. Streetman, professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at the University of Texas at Austin (UTA), has seen the trend coming for the last decade. "I think that mechanical engineering has become appealing to students because it's more of a general program that allows them to do a wide variety of things with their career," says Streetman, who was Dean of Engineering of the school for 12 years before stepping down last year.
Alternative energy, electric vehicles, mechatronics and biomedical engineering are just some of the areas mechanical engineers now work in and students find compelling. Streetman himself formed a new department of biomedical engineering at UTA five years ago. The multidisciplinary degree program, which earns students a BS, MS and Ph.D. in biomedical engineering, involves faculty from mechanical, chemical and electrical engineering and faculty from the UT MD Anderson Cancer Center. It has been enormously popular with students and attracts highly qualified applicants, says Streetman.
Other schools have started up multidisciplinary degree programs, including Purdue University Calumet, which created the first bachelor's degree program in mechatronic engineering technology this year. Marquette University offers a master's degree in mechatronics and freshman-level courses in multidisciplinary engineering. Professor Kevin Craig developed an innovative two-course freshman engineering program here called Engineering Discovery, focusing on multidisciplinary engineering systems through human-centered design and model-based engineering activities.
"As I am a ME teaching these courses, and ME viewing electronics, computers, sensors, actuators and controls as just essential elements in mechanical system design, the EEs think I steal students from them as we in ME do all the 'ordinary' EE stuff," says Craig. "We leave the 'newer' stuff — communications, microwaves, semiconductors, etc. — to the EEs, but even digital signal processing is becoming mainstream."
With so many factors involved, it's hard to say whether the rise in mechanical engineering has been at the expense of electrical engineering, though the number of BSEEs has fallen from a high of 24,547 in 86/87 to 13,089 in 06/07. Streetman, however, does say that with more students choosing mechanical engineering, enrollment in computer science has definitely taken a hit in the past decade.
"I am not surprised at the trend, because of the versatility of the BSME," he says. "When I graduated from high school I went into mechanical engineering because I had spent all my time hot rodding cars. But back then it wasn't nearly so interesting. I took a mechanisms course, and I had to design gears without a computer. I thought 'I can't be doing this stuff the whole time,' so I switched to EE. Now the MEs have better tools and some really cool career opportunities."