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Enrollment in Hofstra's engineering program rises

Hofstra first year engineering students Steven Schweiger, left,

Hofstra first year engineering students Steven Schweiger, left, and Teddy Scanapico, right, work on a project as they get ready to participate in an engineering design competition in December. (Nov. 22, 2013) Credit: Newsday / Alejandra Villa

If you built a car out of wooden dowels, mailing tubes and 10 rubber bands -- and it was able to travel a quarter way down the engineering school hallway and back -- you'd be pretty excited, too.

"It worked!" said wide-eyed Teddy Scanapica, 18, a first-year student at Hofstra University's School of Engineering and Applied Sciences as he and two teammates on a recent afternoon performed a test run of a vehicle that needs to travel 25 feet forward and automatically go 25 feet backward.

With a strict $15 budget and a materials list that also includes foam core, twine and hot glue, some 120 students in the school's first-year mechanical engineering design lab have been tasked with building contraptions that do things like hurl a hard-boiled egg as far as possible without breaking it or launch up to five bagels over a 6-foot wall.

The assignments aim to create a competitive yet fun learning environment for a new generation of students flocking to the college's hard-science programs.

Hofstra University's engineering program saw a 65 percent rise in enrollment over the last five years as the historically liberal arts private school in Hempstead dives deeper into undergraduate and graduate science education and research.

The growth is even outpacing the demand for engineering education nationwide where students with an eye on postgraduation employment are gravitating toward technology majors that offer strong job placement and high starting salaries.

After opening a medical school with the North Shore-Long Island Jewish Health System in 2011, Hofstra announced it would consolidate its existing undergraduate engineering and computer science programs to form the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.

In the summer of 2012, the school hired its founding dean, Simon Ben-Avi, a 28-year professor and administrator from Cooper Union in Manhattan.

The creation of the separate school at Hofstra will allow for the university to allocate more resources and provide strong support for the dean to chase research dollars, Ben-Avi said.

"The school needs a champion and that's my job," Ben-Avi said.

$11M to improve facilities

After summer 2014, Hofstra will have spent a total of $11 million in upgrading and expanding its engineering facilities, including buying expensive equipment such as its new 3-D printer that fills a small room. School officials are also spending more time and energy opening its doors to the local high schools. Plans are in the works to recruit and market to students in Southeast Asia and India, Ben-Avi said.

At the moment, the engineering students are split with half from the metropolitan area and half from elsewhere in the country and world, university officials said.

"We've been here and had an engineering program for decades, but by having a school we now have a greater identity," said Rich Puerzer, associate dean and chairman of engineering at Hofstra. "Prospective students come and seek us out because they know that there's this great opportunity at a primarily liberal arts university."

Hofstra's shift to the sciences is also a necessary strategic move for the tuition-dependent institution.

Nationally, hard science and engineering bachelor's degree completions have grown by 19 percent, compared with 9 percent growth for other disciplines in the last five years, according to a National Student Clearinghouse Research Center report released in mid-November. Experts with the nonprofit, nonpartisan educational research group based in Herndon, Va., use college enrollment data for more than 3,500 participating postsecondary institutions.

"Over the last five years, the growth has accelerated at a faster pace than in the past 30 years," said Jason DeWitt, a research manager at the center.

Between 2009 and 2013, the total number of students graduating with just an engineering bachelor's degree grew by 24 percent -- from 62,550 in 2009 to 77,467 in 2013.

For women, the five-year growth was 33 percent, with 10,054 degrees granted in 2009 to 13,354 in 2013. For men, the growth was 24 percent, 46,453 in 2009 to 57,501 in 2013, the data show. (In some cases, the schools didn't report the gender of their engineering graduates.)

Long Island colleges and universities graduate far fewer engineers than schools around Silicon Valley, said Kevin Law, president and CEO of the Long Island Association, a business and development group.

"The plan for our region is to create an innovative, technology-based economy, so to graduate more engineers that can help expand and even start up some of those companies is a good thing," said Law, who endorsed Hofstra's move toward science education. "These are high-paying jobs and we live in a high-cost area."

Sought smaller classes

Scanapica said the job market is most certainly driving students like him to engineering. Problem-solving and teamwork also make the field attractive. Originally from Staten Island, he said he chose Hofstra's engineering school for its smaller classes and the absence of graduate teaching assistants -- classes and labs are all taught by faculty members with doctorate degrees. The job and graduate school placement rate for Hofstra engineering alums is 97 percent, university officials said.

Even though it isn't a stereotypical cutthroat engineering program, the curriculum has challenged him this semester.

"I came in thinking it was going to be hard, and so far, it's pretty hard," Scanapica said.

Student Mary Kate Sirianni, 21, of Lynbrook, is on track to graduate in May with a major in bioengineering and three minors: chemistry, math and fine arts. That Hofstra has good undergraduate liberal arts courses is a bonus. Her arts minor comes from a number of ceramics classes she's taken during her time there.

"It's a nice break from the hard sciences," she said.

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