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When 43 students graduated last May from Montana State University’s electrical engineering program, 39 of them were men. Just four were women.

Finding ways to increase student diversity, graduation and retention rates are among the topics that will be investigated by MSU’s new Montana Engineering Education Research Center, which was approved recently by the state Board of Regents.

“It’s fantastic,” said Brock LaMeres, an associate professor of electrical and computer engineering, who spent a year spearheading creation of the new research center.

“Anything we find would hopefully contribute to the problems that have plagued engineering education,” LaMeres said, including the lack of diversity. “There are not a lot of females.”

Research by the new center will look into why more women don’t go into engineering and what interventions work to encourage more to choose the field, LaMeres said.

By working with a recognized research center instead of just working on their own, LaMeres said, professors hope to come up with more comprehensive research projects, attract more federal research grants and have a bigger impact.

Already, MSU reports, its engineering faculty has four National Science Foundation grants totaling $800,000 to carry out educational research.

MSU’s College of Engineering grew to a record 3,884 students this fall, said Dean Brett Gunnink. That is an increase of 273 students or 7.5 percent from one year ago.

Engineering, MSU’s second largest college after Letters and Science, is the university’s fastest growing college. Since 2008, it has grown by 88 percent from 2,065 students.

This fall it also has a record number of women students — 654, Gunnink said. However, the portion of female students has been stuck at about 17 percent the last two years. The percentage of women ranges from a low of 8.4 percent in electrical engineering to a high of 34.3 percent in chemical and biological engineering.

“I’m excited about it,” Gunnink said of the new research center.

It grew out of the fact that several engineering faculty members were independently doing research on engineering education, the dean said. They got together, and then faculty from other disciplines on campus, like psychology and education, got involved.

“We realized it could be a significant part of what we do and contribute nationally to what we know about effective engineering education,” Gunnink said.

Paul Gannon, an associate professor of chemical and biological engineering who is researching engineering education, said the new $70 million Norm Asbjornson Hall, now under construction, will provide a kind of laboratory for developing and testing educational innovations.

Having both the new research center and the new building, “whose theme is engineering innovation,” Gannon said, “will aid us in becoming nationally recognized in the engineering education research arena.”

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Gail Schontzler can be reached at 406-582-2633 or gails@dailychronicle.com.

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