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More students exploring subject of renewable energy, but U.S. still lags

More students exploring subject of renewable energy, but U.S. still lagsIn what could be an encouraging sign of change in America’s long-standing

shortage of graduates prepared for high-tech careers, the hottest subject

on college campuses across the nation right now seems to be renewable

energy - a surge of interest driven largely by the specter of global

warming.Concern about climate change is apparently galvanizing more students to

turn toward a subject involving science and engineering, educators suggest,

in much the way that Moscow’s launching of the Sputnik space satellite

jolted baby boomers to turn their eyes to the stars.Over the past year, college and university leaders say they have seen a

surge of enthusiasm among undergraduates for studying energy sources that

don’t contribute to global pollution.What remains uncertain is whether enthusiasm for the science and technology

of renewable energy sources will carry over into graduate school, swelling

the ranks of Americans with advanced degrees in such subjects."We have a shortfall of people to do cutting-edge research and do the

innovations we need," said Vijay Dhir, dean of the engineering school at

UCLA. But, he added, "the potential is there."The rising interest in renewable energy is so new that it’s not clearly

reflected in the latest enrollment figures, educators say. But leaders from

a range of schools across the country - including Arizona State University,

Indiana University, the University of Colorado and UCLA - all say energy

and sustainability are the hottest topic for their students.President Barack Obama is mounting a multibillion-dollar push to boost

so-called "clean energy," in hopes of creating millions of U.S. jobs. The

effort includes stepped-up support for graduate research in the area. At

the White House last week, Obama told a group of academics and energy

entrepreneurs that "innovators like you are creating the jobs that will

foster our recovery - and creating the technologies that will power our

long-term prosperity."The United States has struggled in the past two decades, however, to

produce enough home-grown scientists and engineers to meet the booming

demand. And the foreign students who flock to American science and

engineering schools by the thousands are increasingly going back to their

homelands instead of pursuing careers in this country.Enrollment in U.S. graduate engineering programs dropped more than 5

percent from 2003 to 2005, the last year for which statistics are

available. At the same time, rapidly developing countries such as China and

South Korea have ramped up the scale and quality of their graduate

engineering programs.Graduate science enrollment overall in the United States nearly doubled in

the past two decades. But the programs are now more than half-filled with

foreign students, who increasingly leave the country upon graduation:

America’s retention rate for international students - the portion who

remained in the country two years after earning doctoral degrees - fell

between 2003 and 2005, according to an analysis of federal data by Michael

Finn of the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education.Aggravating the dearth of newly minted engineers, the rate at which

American workers with science and engineering skills retire from the work

force is expected to triple over the next decade.If that trend continues, the National Science Board warned in a 2008

report, "the rapid growth in R&D employment and spending that the United

States has experienced since World War II may not be sustainable."Business leaders are equally blunt. "The most critical challenge over the

long term is people and brainpower," said Karen Harbert, who runs the U.S.

Chamber of Commerce’s Institute for 21st Century Energy. Without a

solution, she added, "We’ll be less concerned about importing oil than

talent."Obama hopes massive spending will help. His signature stimulus package

includes $20 billion to sup