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Chemical Engineering Education in Flux

Mindful of declining enrollments, educators emphasize the field's evolution, new directions

March 8, 2004 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 82, Issue 10

Like all educators, chemical engineering professors are keen to attract the brightest students to their ranks. But for several years now, these educators have found that fewer and fewer students are choosing to join the discipline.

While the overall number of students earning bachelor's degrees in engineering rose over the past seven years--from 65,091 in 1997 to 75,031 in 2003, according to the Engineering Workforce Commission--the number of students majoring in chemical engineering has been heading in the opposite direction. EWC pegs the number of students graduating with bachelor's degrees in chemical engineering at 5,342 for 2003, a drop of nearly 1,500 from the discipline's most recent peak of 6,830 in 1997.

Full-time undergraduate enrollment in chemical engineering fell from 28,006 in 1999 to 22,045 in 2002, according to the American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE). This downward slide indicates that the trend is likely to continue for at least the next few years.

From an earnings ability standpoint, it's hard to imagine that chemical engineering would have trouble attracting students. The average chemical engineer who has just completed a bachelor's degree earns $52,000, according to the American Institute of Chemical Engineers' (AIChE) 2002 salary survey. That puts them among the highest paid new engineering graduates.

When asked to attribute the enrollment slump to one particular factor, chemical engineering educators hesitate. For the past 30 years, they say, chemical engineering enrollment has never been on a constant upward or downward slope. Instead, it tends to rise and fall sharply over the course of a decade.

The oil crisis of the mid-1970s inspired many youngsters to study chemical engineering as a way to manage the nation's energy woes. That boom, in turn, led to a glut of chemical engineers, fewer job openings, and declining enrollment in the early 1990s. The consumer products and emerging semiconductor industries buoyed student interest and led to the 1997 peak. And now, as before, the enrollment numbers are cycling downward.

THE CURRENT DECLINE could be due to the floundering economy, AIChE President William D. Byers says. "Chemical engineering, as one of the smaller professions, is affected more by market dynamics than perhaps other disciplines," he says.

Ronald W. Rousseau, chairman of the school of chemical and biomolecular engineering at Georgia Institute of Technology, agrees that chemical engineering enrollment tends to track the economy, but he adds that there may be another force at work. "It could be that some fundamental changes are taking place in science and technology that are attracting our students elsewhere."

Over the past several years, Rousseau says, his department has seen its total undergraduate enrollment shrink from the high 700s to about 550. "I think that a few years ago we were affected by the information technology boom," he says. "More recently, we've been affected by programs related to biology and life science."

Other chemical engineering educators say the same thing. More and more, they find that they are competing with materials science, environmental engineering, and, in particular, bioengineering and biomedical engineering for the same pool of students.

Degree and enrollment statistics seem to bear this out. During the 1994–2003 time frame, the number of students who earned biomedical engineering bachelor's degrees grew from 745 to 1,962, according to EWC. ASEE's enrollment statistics show that between 1999 and 2002, undergraduate biomedical engineering enrollment grew from 5,419 to 8,847.

"When students go to school for an engineering degree, there's traditionally been a clear split between chemical engineers and other engineering disciplines," explains Donald B. Anthony, president and executive director of the Council for Chemical Research (CCR). "That split has always been based on whether a student likes chemistry or not. The students who are skilled in math but don't like chemistry become electrical, mechanical, and civil engineers." But Anthony says that adding bioengineering to a student's choices, especially when it focuses on molecular processes, may change that distribution.

Many chemical engineering educators say they see why students are attracted to the new crop of biology-based engineering programs. Often, there is significant overlap in the chemical engineering and bioengineering curriculum. The two fields naturally complement one another.

These educators view chemical engineering as a discipline that offers students a more general background that can be applied to bioengineering as well as environmental engineering, materials science, and nanotechnology. But they also acknowledge that bioengineering has applications in areas that don't fit in with chemical engineering--biomechanics and the design of artificial limbs, for example.

Chemical engineers also recognize that bioengineering is a "hot" field. AIChE's Byers says whenever he goes to chemical engineering meetings, the most heavily attended sessions are usually related to biotech. AIChE has even launched the Society for Biological Engineering to help integrate biology and chemical engineering.

But biotech isn't catching on just with scientists. Breakthroughs in biorelated disciplines, like the Human Genome Project and stem cells, have certainly gotten the attention of the popular media and, consequently, the public and prospective engineering students.

"You can't really do much reading without seeing the remarkable advances in those fields," Rousseau says. "It's not that there aren't remarkable advances going on in chemical engineering--they're just not getting the same attention."

Perhaps as a way to embrace bioengineering, or at least highlight chemical engineering's role in the discipline, a growing number of departments are changing their names from "chemical engineering" to "chemical and biological engineering" or "chemical and biomolecular engineering."

SOME ARGUE that the name change phenomenon is, at least partly, a marketing move. But others, like Massachusetts Institute of Technology chemical engineering professor Gregory Stephanopoulos, also see it like this: "The change of name, in a way, formalizes a change in direction that has been taking place in chemical engineering for decades."

Stephanopoulos says that a third of his department--which is still called "the department of chemical engineering"--is doing hardcore bioengineering, and another third works in the biological realm in a nontrivial way. Despite this concentration, Stephanopoulos reports that MIT also saw a dip in the number of its undergraduates studying chemical engineering, although in the past two years that number has started to rebound.

While Stephanopoulos embraces chemical engineering's move toward biology, he is reluctant to say that MIT's drop in chemical engineering students was anything other than the discipline's natural enrollment ebb and flow. He notes that while the number of chemical engineering undergraduates at MIT was falling, the number of students in the school's finance program was on the rise--hardly a compelling correlation.

Georgia Tech's Rousseau says his department decided to change its name to "the department of chemical and biomolecular engineering" not because of student interest, but to better reflect how the discipline has evolved.

"Students have been enthusiastic about [the change] when it's described for them," Rousseau explains. "But it's not something they've been clamoring for."

Along with the new name came a revised curriculum. Georgia Tech chemical engineering majors now take courses in biochemistry and bioprocessing. And core courses focus on biological applications as well as traditional chemical engineering applications.

Rousseau is now trying to bring the revised curriculum to the entire discipline. Working under the auspices of CCR with funding from the National Science Foundation, Rousseau and Robert C. Armstrong, chairman of MIT's chemical engineering department, have been working on a project called Frontiers in Chemical Engineering Education. The project's goal is to revamp the classical chemical engineering curriculum.

The project's organizers argue that the classical curriculum still provides students with a good foundation, but it doesn't show how the discipline has evolved. It doesn't demonstrate to students chemical engineering's broad applicability.

They also say that, as biology has evolved into a molecular science, it has become an area where chemical engineering can be applied. The Frontiers project aims to include more biology-related courses in the chemical engineering curriculum. (Summaries of the Frontiers project's workshop series can be found at

"This is the key point," Stephanopoulos says. "We aren't changing the core curriculum--just the emphasis of the different applications." This gives students more flexibility, he explains. And flexibility, both chemical engineering educators and prospective employers say, is key to a working engineer's future.

AT GEORGIA TECH, Rousseau says he's seen a shift in the companies that recruit chemical engineering graduates. In the past, a few large firms dominated recruiting efforts, but now Rousseau sees a broader range of job opportunities.

"Chemical engineers have ended up going into a lot of different industries over the years," CCR's Anthony says. "We've seen the discipline sort of disperse over a much wider array of industries." And while biotechnology is a growing part of that array, most educators say that at the undergraduate level, a more specialized degree does not make an engineering graduate any more marketable.

Terrence Dickenson, manager of college relations and recruitment for DuPont, says, "As we go out to campuses and universities, we do see students with bioengineering degrees. But right now, we're not looking for that type of skill set. That's not to say that we won't be in the future, but right now we're really concentrating on chemical engineering."

Whether engineers who work in bioengineering fields earn more money is also debatable. AIChE's 2002 salary survey shows that, for the most part, chemical engineers who have been working in industry for fewer than five years make about the same amount of money, regardless of type of industry. Graduates working in biotech do tend to be on the higher end of the pay scale, but that could also be because of the higher cost of living in biotech-heavy regions of the U.S.

According to the National Society for Professional Engineers, in 2003 the average salary of a biomedical/biomechanical engineer was $104,000, $9,000 more than what the average chemical engineer earned--$95,000. The year before, NPSE's survey showed that chemical engineers were earning slightly more than their colleagues in biomedical/biomechanical engineering.

Mike Dudukovic, chairman of the chemical engineering department at Washington University, St. Louis, says students' eagerness to major in more specialized degrees is part of what he calls the "chemical engineering paradox."

"On the one hand, [chemical engineering] has been enormously successful in producing graduates who meet the needs of more than a dozen diverse industries," he wrote in a C&EN guest editorial (C&EN, May 12, 2003, page 3). "On the other hand, overall enrollment in chemical engineering departments is dropping and departments are rushing away from more traditional fields."

Dudukovic welcomes chemical engineering's incorporation of bioengineering, but he warns that how a university incorporates the discipline has a profound effect on other engineering departments.

FOR EXAMPLE, he says, Washington University's biomedical engineering department has been wildly successful since it opened its doors in 1997. In fact, well over a third of the engineering school's incoming freshman plan to major in biomedical engineering. But because the university capped the number of incoming freshmen in the engineering school at previous levels, biomedical engineering's success came at the expense of other departments, in particular, chemical engineering.

Dudukovic wonders if the students and his department would have fared better if the engineering school had chosen to adopt Carnegie Mellon University's approach.

When Carnegie Mellon introduced its biomedical engineering curriculum, it required students to earn a joint degree in either chemical, mechanical, electrical, computer, or civil engineering. As a result, the school has bucked the downward trend, and chemical engineering enrollment has actually grown.

AIChE's Byers warns chemical engineering educators not to be myopic about the recent enrollment slide. "If I were chemical engineering faculty, I wouldn't be too concerned about my supply of students based on the past couple years," he says.

But Byers, along with most other chemical engineering educators, says chemical engineering's move toward biology is not a fad but rather a sea change for the discipline. And ultimately, he says, chemical engineering can only benefit from the new frontiers that biology has to offer.

"Really, when it comes down to it," Byers adds, "it's all about molecules."


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