published Thursday, October 13th, 2011

STEM enrollment climbs at University of Tennessee

University of Tennessee researchers Tihami Qureshi, left, Harini Patel work at the 34-year-old Walters Life Science building in Knoxville, Tenn.
University of Tennessee researchers Tihami Qureshi, left, Harini Patel work at the 34-year-old Walters Life Science building in Knoxville, Tenn.
Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.
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UT enrollment in STEM disciplines

Year — Bachelor's — Master's — Doctoral Total

2005 — 2,693 — 772 — 767 — 4,232

2006 — 2,864 — 708 — 771 — 4,343

2007 — 2,941 — 711 — 825 — 4,477

2008 — 3,291 — 689 — 837 — 4,817

2009 — 3,530 — 650 — 895 — 5,075

2010 — 3,794 — 623 — 1021 — 5,438

Total change: 41% — 19% — 33% — 28%

By Megan Boehnke, Knoxville News Sentinel

In a microbiology lab at the University of Tennessee, while studying yeast proteins that someday could help design better medical drugs, then-freshman Madelyn Crawford decided that was the kind of research she wanted to do for the rest of her life.

Crawford, now a junior, is among the growing number of UT students opting to study science, technology, engineering or math over other degree programs.

Since 2005, the number of students enrolled in STEM disciplines across all degree levels at UT jumped 28 percent, while those numbers rose 41 percent among undergraduates. In that same period, UT's overall enrollment rose about 5 percent, according to university data.

"That doesn't mean other disciplines aren't important on campus, but there has been a shift, and that's good for us," said Chancellor Jimmy Cheek, who added that the university hasn't recruited undergraduate students specifically into science and math degrees.

Instead, Cheek pointed to an improvement in the quality of those programs, high job placement and entry-level pay in those fields and freshman classes that are consistently more accomplished than the year before.

"So as students come on campus interested in STEM, [enrollment has] shifted in that direction," he said.

Graduates in those STEM fields also are increasing, about 18 percent since 2005.

The shift in student interest is good for the state, which is trying to attract high-quality jobs, said Bill Hagerty, commissioner for economic and community development.

The influx of graduates with credentials in science and engineering is vital to the state's strategy of expanding industries like automotive, health care, chemical and plastics, and logistics and transportation, he said. An educated and skilled work force, Hagerty said, is among the top priorities for businesses looking at expansion or relocation.

For the university, however, the shift also means a strain on resources, said Wayne Davis, dean of engineering whose college accounts for more than half of the STEM student enrollment.

The college has managed to accommodate the growth -- even in areas like chemical engineering, which has doubled -- despite budget cuts across the university.

Engineering didn't have the same level of cuts as other programs, Davis said, and also has a differential tuition that charges students an extra $45 per engineering credit hour.

Still, if the college grows at the same rate over the next five years, it will not be able to support the influx of students without hiring more faculty or moving to a more competitive admissions process, Davis said.

The College of Engineering already has minimum requirements for admission, and its students average high school GPAs of 4.0 and math ACT scores of 30.5.

"It would be sad if we had to tell a bright student who wanted to get a degree in engineering, 'I'm sorry, we don't have the space or the resources to admit you.'" Davis said.

Shifting of resources is something that already has happened, Cheek said. As money returns to the budget through tuition increases or potential increased funding from the state, it will go to courses with the highest student demand.

"As we continue to attract better and better students ... there will be continuing pressure, and we'll have to address that by either increasing the faculty and the resources for the College of Engineering or be more selective in who we admit," he said.

Contact Megan Boehnke at boehnkem@knoxnews.com or 865-342-6432.

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