Surge of students pursuing ‘clean energy’

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In what could be an encouraging sign of change in the long-standing shortage of Americans preparing for “clean energy” careers, the subject is suddenly hot on college campuses across the nation -- a surge of interest largely stimulated by the specter of global warming.

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

What remains uncertain is whether their enthusiasm for renewable energy will carry over into graduate school and lead them to swell the ranks of Americans with advanced science and engineering degrees.


“We have a shortfall of people to do cutting-edge research and do the innovations we need,” said Vijay K. 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 -- including Arizona State University, Indiana University and the University of Colorado -- say energy and sustainability are the hottest topic for their students.

President Obama is mounting a multibillion-dollar push to boost “clean energy,” in an attempt to create millions of jobs while focusing on the environment. The effort includes stepped-up support for graduate students doing 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.”

The U.S. has struggled in the last two decades to produce enough home-grown scientists and engineers to meet demand. Enrollment in graduate engineering programs dropped more than 5% 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 such programs, both in size and quality.

Graduate science enrollment in the U.S. nearly doubled in the last two decades. But the programs are now more than half-filled with foreign students, who increasingly are leaving the country upon graduation.


Aggravating the dearth of newly minted engineers, the rate at which American workers with science and engineering skills retire is expected to triple over the next decade.

If that trend continues, “the rapid growth in [research and development] employment and spending that the United States has experienced since World War II may not be sustainable,” the National Science Board said in a 2008 report.

Business leaders are equally blunt. “The most critical challenge over the long-term is people and brainpower,” said Karen Harbert, executive vice president and managing director of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Institute for 21st Century Energy.

Obama hopes massive federal spending will help. His economic stimulus package includes $20 billion to support basic and applied science research -- much of it done by graduate students -- that could yield cheaper solar cells, more efficient wind turbines and longer-lasting batteries. His proposed federal budget seeks to triple the number of graduate research fellowships.

The increased interest among students reflects developments over the last few years that have raised the profile of global warming. Climate change was a prominent issue in the presidential campaign, with Obama and other Democrats focusing heavily on it and Republicans joining in calling for action. Even the Bush administration, which had previously downplayed climate change, acknowledged the issue as important.

The nation’s economic problems may also be contributing to the trend.

“In the past, very talented kids would go into business school, to Wall Street, get big bonuses,” said Yannis C. Yortsos, the engineering dean at USC. “That may not be the case for a while. They may go into engineering instead.”


Yortsos has seen a rise in freshman and graduate-student interest in renewable energy research. It’s driven by a “social awareness” of sustainability issues and climate change, he said.

Students agree. “I became an engineer because of alternative energy and the potential it had” to solve problems, said Loni Iverson, 21, a mechanical engineering senior at USC who is assisting a professor’s research into fuel cells that run on bacteria. “In high school, I kept hearing about America’s dependence on foreign oil and the war in Iraq and gas prices rising.”

Graduate research often leads to patents, which often lead to start-up firms -- and sometimes major industries. Economists have shown strong links between patent production and economic growth.

University presidents and deans say that half the nation’s science and engineering challenge is encouraging more domestic students to pursue graduate degrees. The other half is to retain more of the foreign students after they earn their degrees. They are being lured back to their home countries by quality jobs or pushed by complications in securing legal U.S. residence.

The immigrant scientists and engineers who study in the U.S. appear to be more inclined to take risks and start new companies, said Alice P. Gast, president of Lehigh University. Gast previously was vice president for research and associate provost at MIT, where she noted in a 2005 faculty newsletter that the university had seen a rapid increase in patent disclosures with at least one international student involved.

Gast and other university presidents say that to keep domestic students engaged and keep international students in the U.S., the federal government must sustain its energy research spending. Top students, Gast said, “will go where the excitement is.”


Obama’s energy secretary, Steven Chu, said in a recent interview that he sees “a new cadre of idealistic people who want to work on [energy] in any way they can” -- and that harnessing them is the key to the nation’s economic future.

“You have to start the long-term now,” Chu said. “The long-term is being aware that a lot of students want to study science and engineering for this issue, to support them. That requires patience.”