With one of only 29 remaining nuclear engineering programs in the country, the University of Utah hopes a $1.5 million gift will increase interest and expand research capabilities for students within the College of Engineering.

The generous donation, announced today, will support a new endowed chair position in the department and will help to address an increased demand for engineers, who are often called the world's problem-solvers — working on complex issues as well as the innovation of products people use every day.

"We don't deny that engineering students have to work hard, but it's exciting, too," said Richard B. Brown, dean of the U.'s College of Engineering. He added that engineers not only have the jobs of finding solutions to the world's problems but they are currently snatching up some of the highest paid jobs right out of school.

"It's not just solving math problems," Brown said. "There's a lot of math involved, but there's a creative side to it as well."

Nuclear engineers are working to solve the current

energy crisis, said to be one of the world's biggest problems, needing immediate attention.

Doug Crawford, 32, knows that his future is bright because of the extra efforts he's made in school, especially adding a couple years to complete a few nuclear engineering courses. Ever since he saw "the cool blue glow" emitted by the nuclear reactor housed at the U. for educational purposes, he's been hooked on energy preservation and creation.

"The demand has never been stronger, and this gives me a different opportunity," Crawford said. He hopes to conduct further research on how the world can reuse nuclear waste, separating the useful isotopes from the actual garbage and recycle it into usable energy.

"I like seeing it be put to use and having it come full circle into something useful," he said. "There are so many aspects to it. It's a wide-open field and something at the forefront of science." The idea that he's helping the environment and in turn, helping the world, Crawford said, will make his job easier to do and more interesting along the way.

Currently, Japan, France and Germany have the corner on the market of nuclear energy solutions and producing engineering graduates. The decline in plant licenses that are granted throughout the United States has forced many schools to terminate nuclear engineering programs, but the U. kept going through difficult times.

Brown said for the past four years, he's wanted to grow the nuclear engineering program, especially given the fact that the school has access to a teaching and research reactor. Now, for the first time, with various committed resources, the school will offer a minor in nuclear engineering.

"It will give students the background to be part of the solution," Brown said, adding that 20 percent of the people running Fortune 500 companies are engineers, making it a highly marketable pre-professional degree.

The $1.5 million gift from the EnergySolutions Foundation will be used to establish a presidential endowed chair in nuclear engineering, which will provide unique opportunities for students and faculty, according to Brown.

With continued projected growth in the state of Utah, engineers are fast becoming a premium, said Marilyn K. Davies, director of development at the U.'s College of Engineering. She said EnergySolutions' gift will give the school the ability to recruit a nationally recognized leader to a tenured position.

"It's a competitive market for faculty," said Paul J. Tikalsky, professor and chairman of the U.'s civil and environmental engineering department. "Nuclear engineering programs are ramping up all over the country, trying to again become the leader."

Enrollment is climbing, but U. officials are still doing everything they can to get kids interested in engineering, including reaching nearly 17,000 elementary and junior high students already this year through presentations, visits and other outreach efforts.

"The demand is so high that growing in-state talent is essential for us to move in a sustainable and positive way," Tikalsky said.

Their efforts are paying off and graduation rates have increased by 65 percent since former Gov. Mike Leavitt created the state's engineering initiative, challenging colleges and universities to increase the number of qualified workers for high-paying jobs. However, the need continues to grow.

"We're the poster child for what can happen when government invests in education," Brown said.


E-mail: wleonard@desnews.com