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Author: Greg Pearson
Learning about Engineering Technology Education
In early 2011 a small group of leaders in the engineering technology (ET) education community began to engage me in a dialogue about their field. Their desire seemed to be to bring a higher level of national attention to engineering technology, which they felt had much to offer but was overshadowed by “traditional” engineering. I was woefully ignorant of ET and busy with other projects, so initially these conversations did not make much of an impression. Over time, however, with more thought and a bit of research on my own, I began to feel that there was something important in what these educators were saying.
For one thing, the number of people graduating with 2- and 4-year ET degrees, though smaller than in engineering, was hardly insignificant. In 2014, US postsecondary institutions made roughly 18,000 4-year and 35,000 2-year ET awards. Why were these students choosing to study ET rather than engineering? Where did they go after graduating? Did they earn as much? Did they do the same or different work?
As I did more research, I was struck by the almost complete absence of the mention of engineering technology in public discourse about the need for more, or more diverse, engineering talent in the United States. Why this apparent blind spot?
These and other questions became the foundation for a successful NAE proposal to the National Science Foundation (NSF) for a study of engineering technology education in the United States. The 14-member committee selected for the study was cochaired by NAE members Ron Latanision (Exponent, Inc.) and Katharine Frase (IBM, ret.). The committee met four times, commissioned a review of federal educational and occupational data, designed and fielded two surveys—of ET education programs and of employers of engineering talent—and held a one-day information-gathering workshop. The committee’s report was released in February 2017.1
This issue presents the summary from the report and three original articles. The summary provides a brief overview of the ET field, noting some of the definitional challenges and data limitations the committee encountered in its work. It also presents the committee’s findings and recommendations in four areas: the nature of ET education, supply and demand for ET-related talent, educational and employment pathways, and data collection and analysis.
The article by Daniel Kuehn, who collected and analyzed much of the ET-related federal educational and occupational data for the committee’s deliberations and report, points to a glaring gap in what is known about the sub-baccalaureate STEM workforce. As he notes, the paucity of information in this area is largely the result of a federal data infrastructure that seems to value bachelor’s and graduate degrees over other credentials (such as associate’s degrees and certificates) in the skills hierarchy. Among other things, this deficit makes it impossible to examine the question of whether there is or is not a shortage of engineering technicians in the United States. Kuehn also draws attention to the dramatic increase over the past decade in ET certificate awards. He suggests a number of steps policymakers might consider to both better understand and support the development of sub-baccalaureate ET talent.
Ron Dempsey, who contributed some of the historical information about the ET field included in the committee’s report (chapter 2), explores the intriguing fact that Black students graduate at a much higher rate from ET programs, at both the 2- and 4-year degree level, than they do from traditional 4-year engineering programs. His research suggests a number of factors that may influence students’ choices, such as program cost, scheduling flexibility (for students who work full or part time), and personal preference for hands-on, applied learning. He posits that the typically less-mathematics-intensive ET curriculum may also play a role in attracting and retaining these students. The answer to the question of whether ET is a gateway or a gatekeeper to a career in engineering, as his article title frames the issue, seems uncertain. Perhaps it is both.
Daniel M. Hull and Mel Cossette, directors of NSF-funded Advanced Technology Education centers and members of the study committee, bring attention to the connections between high schools and community colleges in the preparation of STEM technicians, including but not limited to those working in engineering technology. Their article describes the various career pathways available to both K–12 students and adults, including those with no college experience and returning veterans. They make the case that the pursuit of a 4-year college degree is neither necessary, from the standpoint of earnings potential, nor the best choice for the many individuals who struggle in traditional academic learning environments.
I suspect many readers of The Bridge will be surprised to learn about engineering technology. Although this close cousin to traditional engineering arose in the 1940s out of the technical institutes and grew in popularity after the launch of Sputnik in 1957, it remains largely under the radar of the engineering education community and of those who develop programs and policies to support the US STEM workforce. It is my hope that this issue and the committee’s full report will stimulate more dialogue and interest in this critical component of the nation’s technical workforce.
1 The report, Engineering Technology Education in the United States, can be viewed and downloaded free of charge through the National Academy of Engineering website, www.nae.edu, under Publications.