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Opinion: Utah should keep its engineering momentum going

Substantive investments and the right strategic partnerships will allow Utah to shape itself into a game-changer in the modern economy

SHARE Opinion: Utah should keep its engineering momentum going
Astrid Tuminez, president of Utah Valley University, speaks about the Wasatch Innovation Network during a press conference.

Astrid Tuminez, president of Utah Valley University, speaks about the Wasatch Innovation Network during a press conference at Colliers International in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, July 13, 2021.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

In the early 2000s, then-Utah Gov. Michael O. Leavitt identified a major challenge for our state. Too many of Utah’s startups were migrating to Silicon Valley for adequate talent and venture capital.

Leavitt envisioned a high-tech economy thriving in Utah. To create a road map for his vision, he reached out to Silicon Valley industry leaders and met John Warnock, University of Utah alumnus and cofounder of Adobe Systems, who shared that the key to a high-tech economy was investing in engineering education.

In 2001, the Utah State Legislature passed SB61, or the Engineering Initiative, as a long-term collaboration between state government, higher education and industry leaders to facilitate a surge in engineering and computer science degrees. Now, nearly two decades since the bill was passed, Utah’s higher education system has more than doubled its annual output of engineering and computer science graduates.

At Utah Valley University, we have nearly tripled our engineering students from 366 in 2001 to almost 1,100 in 2021, and computer science majors increased from 104 to 1,010 in the same timeframe. From 2010-2020, tech-related employment in Utah expanded from 46,000 to more than 118,000, and the state’s GDP has grown from $70 billion to $168 billion.

The Engineering Initiative has had a powerful impact on our state economy. In the past year alone, more than 3,000 engineers and computer science majors have graduated from the combined colleges and universities in Utah. Despite the positive results, there remain approximately 3,700 engineering job openings across Utah’s workforce annually.

Additionally, the high output of engineers and computer scientists has had a secondary effect: for every engineer there is a need for four to five technologists to build, maintain and operate their designs.

Keeping pace with that growth has been difficult. The shortage of talent has forced some companies, such as Qualtrics, to add offices elsewhere or leave the state altogether. Unless this problem is resolved, it is likely other companies will follow, which would severely impact Utah’s economy and education sector.

Engineering is a hands-on process. Beyond theory, students need labs and studios to design and test their projects. At UVU, for every engineering student, we need 100-140 square feet of space per the standards allotted students at other universities. At the current enrollment and matriculation growth rate, there is little chance of building the programs we need to attract engineering students without adequate space.

Last October, Qualtrics co-founder Scott M. Smith and his wife Karen gifted $25 million for a new engineering building and enhanced programming at UVU. The Smiths’ gift jump-started a private campaign to raise $30-$40 million required to start construction on a 180,000 square-foot, five-story building that will be located on UVU’s Orem campus. UVU will seek the bulk of funding from the state Legislature for this transformational building, but the early confidence and commitment by industry leaders such as Smith underline the significance of this project for Utah’s tech economy.

Equally important is the need to strengthen outreach programs and start teaching students STEM — science, technology, engineering and math — curriculum early. Part of the state’s Engineering Initiative involves outreach to K-12 students, but this has faced some roadblocks as middle school and high school teachers struggle to find effective engineering curriculum.

Recently, UVU’s School of Education and College of Engineering and Technology partnered with Facebook to promote STEM among elementary school students by providing teachers with SEEdPOD trailers that are filled with STEM teaching tools such as 3D printers, virtual reality systems, earthquake simulators, volcano kits, etc.

The acronym “SEEdPOD” comes from Utah’s Science and Engineering Education (SEEd) standards, which combine principles of engineering with science subjects. The lesson plans and materials for teachers are stored in trailers called “pods.” In addition, the university hosts UVU Prep, an immersive, three-summer program in STEM subjects, projects and careers for rising seventh, eighth and ninth graders who apply and are accepted.

These initiatives are critical to generating and strengthening interest in engineering and computer science from a young age.

Additionally, UVU partners with Silicon Slopes to offer a technology management emphasis MBA. This specialized program grants UVU’s MBA students the opportunity to hear from Silicon Slopes’ network of executives and engage in unparalleled real-world classroom experience. Graduates from this program receive incredible employment offers and accept top-tier positions at several of Utah’s premier companies, including Adobe, Pluralsight, Oracle, Vivint, BambooHR, WCF Insurance, Fidelity Investments, Intermountain Healthcare and many more.

Industry members at any level can help advance the Engineering Initiative by delivering guest lectures and mentoring high school and college students. Recently, UVU faculty collaborated with UDOT practitioners to advise our civil engineering students on their capstone design projects and enjoyed positive results. Industry leaders’ support is also critical to make the engineering building at UVU a reality.

As Leavitt once said, “Like a moth attracted to light, business flocks to engineering talent.” With a unique initiative that has been carried forward by government, education and industry leaders committed to its success for over 20 years, Utah has quickly advanced itself as a leading state in the tech industry.

It would be a shame to let the Engineering Initiative go to waste and lose more companies due to a shortage of STEM graduates. Substantive investments and the right strategic partnerships will allow Utah to shape itself into a game-changer in the modern economy across the United States — and around the world.

Astrid Tuminez is president of Utah Valley University.