College Students Pursue ‘Clean Energy’ Careers
Nowadays students are not oblivious to the hazards of global warming. They are quite keen on pursuing a ‘clean energy’ career. Now the concern about climate change is stimulating more undergraduate students to show interest in science and engineering. We can watch the trend of the rising interest in renewable energy. As leaders from various schools such as Arizona State University, Indiana University and the University of Colorado confirm that energy and sustainability are the hottest topics for their students. But another fact which can’t be guaranteed is whether their keenness for renewable energy will remain so into graduate school and further on in life.
Vijay K. Dhir is the dean of the engineering school at UCLA. He explains the situation, “We have a shortfall of people to do cutting-edge research and do the innovations we need. But the potential is there.”
Politicians too are creating a conducive environment for research and development. President Obama is quite keen on developing alternative energy. He is responsible for a multi-billion-dollar push to boost “clean energy.” It is thought that this step will create millions of jobs in clean and green energy field. The endeavor includes stepped-up support for graduate students doing research in the area.
If we watch the statistics of U.S. science scene, this country is struggling in the last two decades to produce enough scientists and engineers to meet demand. Students pursuing the graduate engineering programs dropped more than 5% from 2003 to 2005. But countries like China and South Korea are realizing the importance of science and technology and their number of students are swelling up, both in size and quality. Graduate science enrolments in the U.S. are also on the increase in the last two decades. But more than 50% of the seats are occupied by the foreign students, who don’t stay back in the country. Another catch is, the rate at which American workers with science and engineering proficiency retire is expected to triple over the next decade. Karen Harbert, is the executive vice president and managing director of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Institute for 21st Century Energy. He says, “The most critical challenge over the long-term is people and brainpower.” Taking all these facts into account, the National Science Board said in a 2008, 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.”
Obama is pumping huge funds in the form of economic stimulus package. This package includes $20 billion for fundamental and applied science research. We are familiar with the fact that much of the research work is completed by graduate students. It may lead us to cheaper solar cells, more efficient wind turbines and longer-lasting batteries. Obama’s federal budget intends to triple the number of graduate research fellowships.
Yannis C. Yortsos is the engineering dean at USC. He says, “In the past, very talented kids would go into business school, to Wall Street, get big bonuses. That may not be the case for a while. They may go into engineering instead.” Yortsos has witnessed a rise in freshman and graduate-student interest in renewable energy research. He thinks that it is due to “social awareness” of sustainability issues and climate change. Loni Iverson, 21, a mechanical engineering senior at USC reaffirms Yannis C. Yortsos belief. He is assisting a professor’s research into fuel cells that run on bacteria. He says, “I became an engineer because of alternative energy and the potential it had to solve problems. In high school, I kept hearing about America’s dependence on foreign oil and the war in Iraq and gas prices rising.”
There is a strong link between patent productions and economic growth. Some really innovative patents emerge out of graduate research and start-up firms are needed to make the patented technologies commercially viable.
University presidents and deans are emphasizing on encouraging U.S. students to pursue science and engineering graduate degrees. They are also trying to retain the foreign students who often leaves due to quality jobs or legal complications involved in securing U.S. residence. According to Alice P. Gast, president of Lehigh University, the immigrant scientists and engineers who study in the U.S. seem to pursue risks and start new companies. Earlier Gast was vice president for research and associate provost at MIT. There she spotted a trend in a 2005 faculty newsletter that the university had seen a rapid increase in patent disclosures with at least one international student involved.
Obama’s energy secretary, Steven Chu, is in agreement that a bright future lies ahead for those going for alternative energy. He 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.”
Chu is of the view that, “You have to start the long-term now. 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.”