CORVALLIS - The College of Engineering at Oregon State University has begun a major expansion of enrollment, faculty and facilities with the new $2.96 million in funding it received from the Oregon legislature, in what officials envision as the first step of a process critical to Oregon's future.
A severe shortage of engineers, especially in computer, electronic and other high technology fields, is hampering the industry that the state looks to for its economic growth, and recently prompted Gov. John Kitzhaber to call for a doubling of engineering graduates within five years.
The changes under way at OSU will make a good down payment towards that goal, educators say.
"This is just the first part of what clearly will be a long-term process to create a top tier engineering program that can support Oregon's high tech future," said Ron Adams, dean of the college. "There's still a long way to go, but at least now we're moving in the right direction."
Twelve new faculty are being added at OSU, seven of which have already been hired since the first new state funding became available last fall. Facility expansion is under way. A wealth of new scholarships has significantly increased the number of Oregon's brightest students who are choosing to attend OSU for their education. And by 2003 the college has committed to graduating 90 additional engineers every year in a range of fields, a 23 percent expansion.
But even that growth is small compared to what may lie ahead. For instance, next fall the college expects to enroll about 3,500 students, a jump of more than 400 students from current levels.
"In the early 1990s the number of engineering degrees related to high technology dropped by 25 percent, but there is now a huge increase in the numbers of students who want to pursue careers in engineering," Adams said. "This pipeline has already filled up, and what we need now is the capacity to educate and graduate these bright young students."
The investment provided by the Oregon legislature for the 1999-2001 biennium will provide a good start towards that goal, Adams said, and the new funding model for the state system of higher education should help perpetuate it. That model allows funds to follow students towards the universities and educational programs they choose. And OSU's highly successful programs of recruitment and retention are also contributing to the growing enrollments, not just in engineering but across the university.
Oregon's shortage of engineers is critical, Adams said. When comparing the number of new "high tech" related degrees granted per high technology worker, the American Electronics Association recently concluded that Oregon ranked 49th in the nation.
In other words, it's bringing up the rear in providing educational support to an industry the state looks to for its economic future. And Oregon's high tech industry is now forced to hire the majority of the college graduates it needs from out of state.
That should begin to change rapidly, OSU officials say.
"Most of the increase in the number of degrees we currently have planned will begin to take place by 2002 and 2003," Sabah Randhawa, associate dean of the college. "Right now most of that increase is going to be reflected in fields such as computer science or computer and electrical engineering. But in the future, especially as the high tech industries of the state continue to expand, we'll also be needing more engineers from other disciplines to support the manufacturing and infrastructure growth, as well as emerging fields such as biotechnology and the need for sustainability."
The recent improvements, Randhawa said, include:
- Nine new tenure track, three fixed-term faculty and two staff positions are being added.
- Fields of education and research that are getting a special boost include electronic commerce, mixed analog and digital circuit design, computer design tools, and microelectronics.
- New support equipment, computer networks and student advising programs will be added.
- A new 25-computer laboratory focused on Microsoft NT will be used to improve both undergraduate and graduate instruction.
- The first floor of Dearborn Hall is being renovated to provide more space for faculty offices, labs and student study areas.
- The number of graduate student credit hours should expand by about 10 percent by 2003.
Contributing to this rapid growth, Adams said, are initiatives to increase the number and amount of scholarship support to prospective and existing students. For instance, the Dean's Scholarship in the College of Engineering is targeted towards high school students who have scores of 1,300 or better on their SAT exams, or grade point averages of 3.9 or above.
"These clearly are among the brightest students in Oregon who can pretty much go to school anywhere they wish," Adams said. "But last fall we offered 91 of these scholarships and 62 percent of the students took them and are attending OSU. The number of engineering students now at OSU with SATs over 1,300 has increased 37 percent compared to 1998-99."
The OSU College of Engineering has almost 25,000 alumni, and already offers very high quality - its "pass rate" on the Fundamentals of Engineering national exam is 96 percent, compared to a national average of 75 percent. It offers programs in bioresource; chemical; civil, environmental and construction; electrical and computer; industrial and manufacturing; mechanical; and nuclear engineering, plus computer science and radiation health physics. It also operates or participates in 12 research centers and institutes, and conducted $12.1 million in research during 1999.
Future expansion of programs and new initiatives are still being sought, officials said.