Sam Viron knew coming out of high school that she wanted to major in engineering, and had her heart set on leaving Kansas to do it.
But when she visited the University of Kansas, just a few weeks before she had to pick a school, Viron said its brand new facilities and a scholarship that provides money with a mentoring program blew her away.
“How could I say no to something like this?” said Viron, a sophomore from Olathe. “I really had a hard time finding any school that topped the facilities and resources we have here at KU.”
Attracting more students like Viron and, ultimately, graduating them is the goal of the 10-year, $105 million University Engineering Initiative Act. The act aims to increase engineering degrees at KU, Kansas State and Wichita State to a total of 1,365 annually by 2021.
Engineering enrollment at KU has grown in a big way — from 1,898 in 2012 to 2,381 in 2016, according to figures released in January by the Kansas Board of Regents. Less than five years into the act, KU has met and exceeded its targeted number of graduates, according to the Regents.
“Halfway in, we’ve already surpassed that goal,” KU engineering dean Michael Branicky said. “We hope to continue to produce beyond that goal number all the way through.”
Each of the three universities gets $3.5 million per year in state legislative appropriations under the act, starting in 2012, according to the Regents. The schools are matching that money dollar for dollar, so over the life of the act schools will have bolstered engineering programs by more than $200 million.
At KU, the state money has primarily gone toward constructing two new facilities and hiring enough new faculty to keep up with rising enrollment, Branicky said.
The Learned Engineering Expansion Phase 2, known as LEEP2, opened in August 2015. The state-of-the-art $65 million, 110,100-square-foot building — now the centerpiece of KU’s engineering complex on 15th Street — is connected to Learned Hall, Spahr Library, Eaton Hall and the Measurement, Materials and Sustainable Environment Center (M2SEC).
The other building enabled by the state act is the 25,000-square-foot Structural Testing and Student Projects Facility on West Campus, which opened in fall 2014. The building included a 40-foot-high strong wall and two 20-ton cranes, dedicated to large-scale structures research.
“The facilities play a large role in attracting students here, and the ability to have more faculty allows us to teach the drastically increased number of students,” Branicky said.
Enrollment has increased across the board, Branicky said, though categories that seem to be growing faster than others are mechanical, chemical, petroleum and computer science.
Outside forces have been kind to engineering enrollment, too.
The job market is good, and engineering majors are consistently among the highest paying, Branicky said. Plus there’s been a national emphasis on the STEM fields, Branicky said.
Over the same time period, the KU School of Engineering has increased scholarships, thanks to money raised by KU Endowment, Branicky said.
Branicky said incoming students have higher test scores and high school GPAs than before, which “translates directly to there being better degree attainment.” The school is doing a lot of outreach, scholarship programs and summer camps for middle and high school students, which has led to more diversity in terms of women and minorities.
Viron said she has a “hefty scholarship” through the Self Engineering Leadership Fellows Program, which also provides leadership and professional development opportunities. It’s been a place to plug in with fellow members of her cohort and learn skills that should help when it’s time to find a job.
“It’s a lot more involved than just receiving money,” she said.
Viron said that as a child she wanted to be an architect but realized she liked the math and science part more than the artistic part. At KU, she’s majoring in civil engineering with a focus on structural engineering — a “happy medium” between those loves, she said.
Ideally, all those engineering graduates churned out thanks to the state initiative would stay and work in Kansas, according to the Regents.
Producing more graduates aims to “ensure engineering industry partners find the new talent, designs and techniques needed to fuel economic growth and business success in Kansas,” a Regents summary states.
That’s hard to force, though a number of major companies are located here.
About 39 percent of KU engineering graduates were working in Kansas, as of the 2014-15 academic year, according to the Regents. That number was 44 percent for K-State and 58 percent for Wichita State.
Regents CEO Blake Flanders said some of the biggest Kansas-based companies employ people all over the globe.
Flanders said he thinks products of the engineering act can help keep those companies competitive, and those Kansas grads in faraway places may end up being transferred back to the state in the future.
The Regents plan to update the Legislature on the initiative later this session, said Scott Smathers, the Regents vice president for workforce development.
“I would say the program is definitely a success and moving forward the way that we want it to,” Smathers said.
State engineering initiative
Engineering students enrolled in 2012 v. 2016
KSU — Grew from 2,988 to 3,599
KU — Grew from 1,898 to 2,381
WSU — Grew from 1,690 to 2,240
Engineering graduates in 2012 v. 2016
KSU — Grew from 480 to 494 (Goal is 587 by 2021)
KU — Grew from 335 to 499 (Goal is 419)
WSU — Grew from 214 to 292 (Goal is 361)
Source: Kansas Board of Regents