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A national imperative: Make engineering a requirement for every high school student

October 11, 2023

By Darryll J Pines, PhD

Quote card: Prof Darryll J Pines, President of the University of Maryland, says “the nation’s interests are best served by encouraging more high school students to pursue engineering.”

As a nation, our economic competitiveness, military strength, public health and standard of living depend on cultivating more engineers.

One of America’s greatest and most enduring strengths has been its ability to attract global talent to strengthen our economy and bolster technological competitiveness. In January 2022, the White House announcedopens in new tab/window new actions and pathways for international STEM scholars, students, researchers and other experts to contribute to innovation and job creation efforts across the United States.

But our nation’s current STEM shortages within research, development and innovation communities cannot be addressed solely by attracting more global talent.

This post is from the Not Alone newsletter, a monthly publication that showcases new perspectives on global issues directly from research and academic leaders.

The US is also facing a serious crisis in its K-12 pipeline. According to National Student Clearinghouse Research Center data, the percentage of high school students enrolling directly in college in 2020 has shown an “unprecedented” decline of between 4% and 10%.

Experts estimate that during the next decade, fewer students will graduate from high school, and as a result, fewer will pursue STEM majors. The percentage of high school seniors pursuing engineering over the past 40 years has remained relatively constant at 4%, or between about 120,000 and 145,000 high school graduates each year.

Chart: Projected freshman enrollment in engineering and high school graduates. Source: Department of Institutional Research and Analytics, American Society of Engineering Education (ASEE).

Projected freshman enrollment in engineering and high school graduates. (Source: Department of Institutional Research and Analytics, American Society of Engineering Education, ASEE)

The gap in the US STEM pipeline is exacerbated by the large proportion of international graduates who return overseas or else work for foreign companies that compete with US companies, according to the 2020 Industrial Capabilities Report to Congressopens in new tab/window (p. 102).

The report points out that the US is graduating far fewer students with STEM degrees as a percentage of population compared to China — and the trend continues to worsen.

“Engineers create solutions for people and society.”

 C Dan Mote Jr, PhD


C Dan Mote Jr, PhD

President Emeritus at National Academy of Engineering (NAE)

The population of China is four times that of the US, yet it is producing eight times the number of STEM graduates and is now poised to become the world’s largest economy by 2040.

This geopolitical dilemma will require a US trifecta. First, we must make continued investments in basic scientific research. Second, we must expand the pipeline of diverse STEM graduates. And third, we must make engineering a requirement for every high school student. This is the national imperative!

A growing number of high school graduates will be first-generation and from minority backgrounds. It is abundantly clear that the nation’s interests are best served by fueling the K-12 pipeline in ways that encourage more high school students from diverse backgrounds to pursue engineering programs.

But how do we inspire these students to reach their North Star? Most students have a basic understanding that engineers “design and build things” but an extremely limited sense of what engineers actually do. Aggravating matters further, many of them are intimidated by math requirements and never even consider the profession for themselves.

An NSF program is growing the STEM pipeline with diverse students

One successful approach to growing the K-12 pipeline is the NSF-sponsored program engineering 4 US all (e4usa)opens in new tab/window, which teaches engineering principles, skills and the design process to every high school student.

The program, which I lead, attempts to “democratize engineering for every high school student,” in the words of Deputy Division Director Dr Don Millard. Its novel 30-week curriculum requires only high school algebra as a prerequisite and focuses on four major themes: discovering engineering, engineering and society, engineering professional skills, and engineering practice.

No prior knowledge of engineering is required, and any teacher can be trained to deliver this first-of-its-kind engineering course. Students are empowered to create change in their local communities by exposure to problems that are personally meaningful or associated with society’s grand challenges, including sustainability, clean water and human health.

Teaching techniques engage students in the creativity of engineering early in their education. When differences in how students learn are taken into account, research has shown that this has a marked impact on retention. And if universities can retain entering freshmen through completion of their engineering degrees, the number of engineers graduating could increase substantially.

After four years of implementation, e4usa is now in 82 high schools in 21 states, DC and the US Virgin Islands. It has impacted over 5,000 students across the US. The demographics of 2022-2023 cohort is approximately 37% underrepresented minorities and 43% women.

By every measure, this program is growing the pipeline of diverse high school students interested in pursuing STEM degrees. Surveys of the first-year cohort of 82 students resulted in 52 out 82 going into STEM degree programs at either 2-year or 4-year schools. In addition, students can receive credit and placement at 20 colleges and universities around the country.

What attributes might that scientist or engineer of the future possess? They will likely have the ingenuity of Nikola Tesla, the scientific insight of Albert Einstein, the creativity of Maya Angelou, the determination of the Wright brothers, the leadership abilities of Bill Gates, the conscience of Eleanor Roosevelt, and the vision of Dr Martin Luther King Jr.

So let’s make engineering skills a requirement for every high school student! As a nation, our economic competitiveness, military strength, public health and standard of living absolutely depend on it.

Prof Darryll J Pines

Dr Darryll J Pines serves as President of the University of Maryland as well as the Glenn L Martin Professor of Aerospace Engineering.

Formerly the Nariman Farvardin Professor of Engineering and dean of UMD’s A James Clark School of Engineering, where he has been on the faculty since 1995, Dr Pines amassed a record of academic leadership and research accomplishments that have dramatically elevated the school’s rankings and stature nationally and internationally. In 2019, he was elected to the National Academy of Engineering for his “inspirational leadership and contributions to engineering education.”

As dean for 11 years, Dr Pines instituted sweeping changes to improve the student experience, including revamping teaching in fundamental undergraduate courses; encouraging participation in national and international student competitions; emphasizing sustainability engineering and service learning; and expanding innovation and entrepreneurship activities.

Dr Pines has testified before Congress about the importance of K-12 STEM education for all students, and led an initiative to pilot a first-of-its-kind, nationwide, pre-college course on engineering principles and design. The program, Engineering For US All (E4USAopens in new tab/window), was made possible through a $4 million NSF grant. In addition, Pines in 2015 served as chair of the National Academy of Engineering Frontiers in Engineering Educationopens in new tab/window Symposium.

Read his full bioopens in new tab/window


Darryll J Pines, PhD


Darryll J Pines, PhD


University of Maryland