More students exploring renewable energy


In what could be an encouraging sign of change in America’s long-standing shortage of graduates prepared for high-tech careers, the hottest subject on college campuses across the nation right now seems to be renewable energy – a surge of interest driven largely by the specter of global warming.

Concern about climate change is apparently galvanizing more students to turn toward a subject involving science and engineering, educators suggest, in much the way that Moscow’s launching of the Sputnik space satellite jolted baby boomers to turn their eyes to the stars.

During the past year, college and university leaders say they have seen a surge of enthusiasm among undergraduates for studying energy sources that don’t contribute to global pollution.

What remains uncertain is whether enthusiasm for the science and technology of renewable energy sources will carry over into graduate school, swelling the ranks of Americans with advanced degrees.

“We have a shortfall of people to do cutting-edge research and do the innovations we need,” said Vijay Dhir, dean of the engineering school at UCLA. But, he added, “the potential is there.”

The rising interest in renewable energy is so new that it’s not clearly reflected in the latest enrollment figures, educators say. But leaders from a range of schools across the country – including Arizona State University, Indiana University, the University of Colorado and UCLA – all say energy and sustainability are the hottest topic for their students.

President Barack Obama is mounting a multibillion-dollar push to boost so-called “clean energy,” in hopes of creating millions of U.S. jobs. The effort includes stepped-up support for graduate research in the area. At the White House last week, Obama told a group of academics and energy entrepreneurs that “innovators like you are creating the jobs that will foster our recovery – and creating the technologies that will power our long-term prosperity.”

The U.S. has struggled in the past two decades, however, to produce enough home-grown scientists and engineers to meet the booming demand. And the foreign students who flock to American science and engineering schools by the thousands are increasingly going back to their homelands instead of pursuing careers in this country.

Enrollment in U.S. graduate engineering programs dropped more than 5 percent from 2003 to 2005, the last year for which statistics are available. At the same time, rapidly developing countries such as China and South Korea have ramped up the scale and quality of their graduate engineering programs.

Graduate science enrollment overall in the United States nearly doubled in the past two decades.

But the programs are now more than half-filled with foreign students, who increasingly leave the country upon graduation, according to an analysis of federal data by the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education.

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