The education of engineers in plastics and polymers is a picture of various shades and colors. According to the Accrediting Board for Engineering and Technology, there are more than 300 universities and colleges in the United States and Canada offering degrees in engineering. Only two, however, provide ABET-accredited bachelor of science degrees in plastics engineering technology - Penn State University at Erie, Pa., and Pittsburg State University at Pittsburg, Kansas.
Only one awards an ABET-accredited bachelor's degree in plastics engineering, the University of Massachusetts at Lowell.
Opportunities for engineers to learn about plastics do exist, but they are rare.
For example, there are 96 student chapters of the Society of Plastics Engineers on campuses around the country. The most recent edition (1991-1992) of the Plastics Institute of America's Directory of Polymer Science and Engineering Programs lists 50 uni-versities and institutes in the United States and Canada with undergraduate and graduate courses (including U-Mass atLowell, but not Erie or Pittsburg). Yet, the Metallurgy/Materials Education Yearbook, published in July, lists only 16 schools in the United States with polymer science faculties.
All of which makes it difficult to get a clear picture of just how much polymer and plastics education is being offered to students in engineering schools.
A lot of people believe the subject of plastics is shamefully neglected at universities. For example, Everett Luckman, owner of Quadel Industries in Coos Bay, Ore., resents the fact that engineering schools seem to concentrate on steels and other metals, when the steel industry is declining and plastics is expanding. And Portland, Ore., consultant Miles Wickstrom points out that Portland State University has a respected engineering program, ``but they spend only one term talking about plastics as being one of the materials available.''
Why? Experts on the academic side of the industry offer three explanations: the history and tradition of engineering education; the status of engineering among scientists; and the seeming preference for polymer science as opposed to plastics engineering.
One of the most prominent men in the field, Nick Schott, director of the Institute for Plastics Innovation at the U-Mass, which does offer a degree in plastics engineering, believes history and tradition are responsible for the relative lack of plastics courses in engineering schools.
Traditionally, he said, academic people are much more familiar with metals. So there are a lot of schools with metallurgy and material science departments, ``with a heavy emphasis on metals and a little bit of ceramics, but very, very little on polymers.''
Another prominent academician, Richard Stein at U-Mass at Amherst, believes part of the reason is just conservatism.
``Polymer is a kind of a newcomer and it just hasn't made it in some places,'' Stein said. ``In some departments, when they hire new people, there is a tendency among the staff to replicate themselves. This speaks against getting polymer into the curriculum unless there is a far-sighted department head who balances things.''
Norbert Bikales, director of the polymers program for the National Science Foundation, said the engineering curriculum has not reflected that plastics are widely available.
``It's obvious that polymers and plastics have gained heavily in recent decades [in the economy]. The steel industry is in bad shape and the polymer industry is expanding,'' Bikales said.
He added that a shortage of plastics-engineering faculty contributes to the neglect.
``If you don't have anyone on the faculty who knows the subject, then it's hard to teach courses.''
But he believes the number of engineering schools offering courses in plastics is growing.
There has been growth in polymer science, but primarily in schools of engineering, rather than in science departments, according to Stein.
``I think [departments of] chemistry have been more reluc-tant to take on polymer-relatedsubjects than chemical engineering or material science,'' he said.
He cited the University of Akron, Case Western Reserve, Virginia Tech, the Universities ofWisconsin and Minnesota, UC Santa Barbara, and North Carolina State as having strong polymer science programs, in addition to his own U-Mass Amherst program.
``I think most engineering departments are doing something in polymers,'' he said. ``There are not too many that have a great emphasis, but I think they're all realizing the need to do something.''
Stein's department is unusual, since, although it is a polymer science and engineering department, it is not in the university's school of engineering.
``We started off as an interdisciplinary program about 1962,'' he said. ``It was a program not associated with any school, but offered a degree using courses of its own, plus courses of other existing departments. We offered a degree in polymer science and engineering.
``It was so successful it grew into a department in the early 1970s and then the decision had to be made whether it should go into the college of engineering or the college of arts and science. We have probably graduated close to a hundred.''
The program at U-Mass Lowell is probably the oldest offering degrees in plastics engineering. Available are a bachelor's and master's of science, and a doctorate.
It is the only school accredited by the Accrediting Board for Engineering and Technology in plastics engineering.
Some colleges have plastics programs not found in the directories mentioned above, including a variety of two-year degree and certification programs at community colleges.
Everyone interviewed for this article agreed that Penn State University at Erie has an excellent program. John Beaumont, who teaches there, said the university's degree in plastics engineering technology differs from a degree in plastics engineering in that ``we're not going to spend as much time driving equations; we're going to spend more time applying them.''
The program was started eight years ago at the request of the local plastics industry.
``They realized they needed some home-grown skills. They were having problems recruiting and bringing skilled people in from other regions,'' he said.
Industry members came up with $2 million to start the program, developed an equipment endowment and ``hammered out what kind of program they wanted,'' which was engineering technology rather than classic engineering.
``They wanted people who could come in and make an impact immediately and use the latest technology and tools available, whether they were computer systems or processing techniques. They wanted more hands-on,'' Beaumont said.
The Penn State program, as shaped by industry leaders, required that faculty members have at least five years of experience in the plastics industry.
``Our faculty members' experience ranges from 12 to 25 years or more,'' he said.
The program does not require faculty members to have doctorates. The first three faculty members hired had only bachelor's degrees in engineering, although one had a master's degree in business.
``But our strength was in industry. We all had experience in plastics engineering, and we also had management experience,'' Beaumont said.