A $10.1 million gift to the School of Engineering at SMU designed to spark K-12 students’ interest in science and engineering presents the opportunity to inspire and shape our nation’s innovators long before they submit their first college application — and provides hope for the future of American competitiveness.

Applications to engineering schools by American students have been on the decline for the past two decades, a statistic that has dire implications for the nation’s ability to compete in the global marketplace. The W.W. Caruth Foundation at Communities Foundation of Texas announced Thursday their gift will fund the Caruth Institute for Engineering Education, putting bricks and mortar and the promise of valuable resources toward an ambitious program that will change the assumptions students in America make about what they want to be when they grow up.

“New products, new life-saving techniques, medicines, therapies, energy-efficient buildings and vehicles, the exploration of space — almost every single aspect of our lives on this planet are touched by engineers,” said Brent Cristopher, CEO of Communities Foundation of Texas. “The school of engineering at SMU will lead the way nationally to create the teaching strategies and courses that empower the next generation of K-12 students to pursue engineering, to compete in the global marketplace and to change our world.”

SMU President R. Gerald Turner said the gift will allow the university to fulfill its long-standing goal of setting the pace in engineering education. Programs already in place at SMU provide innovative engineering curriculum and teacher training to reach high school students through the Infinity Project, help attract more women into engineering through the Gender Parity Project and allow middle school kids to be “engineers for a day” through the Visioneering Program.

The Caruth Institute will build on these early successes of SMU’s existing Institute for Education, established through a federal grant in 2002. Thursday’s gift will direct $5.1 million to endow the institute and $5 million toward the construction of a new building on the site of the original Caruth Hall, the historic home of SMU engineering since 1948.

Dozens of students from Dallas’ Emmett J. Conrad High School were on hand for Thursday’s gift celebration, wearing T-shirts carrying the institute motto, “Compete to Win.” The students and one of their teachers demonstrated an SMU-designed course that shows how sound can be modulated electronically to create music — an example of how basic engineering principals can be taught in a way that’s both innovative and fun.

“With the Caruth Institute at SMU, our future is limited only by our imagination,” Turner said. “Our goal is to encourage more students to become engineers and then for them to lead in the development of the products and solutions that will make the word a better place by solving critical global problems.”

Texas Instruments Board Chairman Tom Engibous, a partner in many SMU engineering education projects who also sits on the SMU Board of Trustees, said his travels through Asia have convinced him that American students need to be prepared to compete on a level they’re not comfortable with now. “I think in 10 years we will look back at this as one of the most significant days in SMU Engineering,” Engibous said.

SMU School of Engineering Dean Geoffrey Orsak recalled that 50 years ago the liftoff of the Russian satellite Sputnik created a climate of fear that launched the Cold War and the space race —battles fought by engineers and scientists at a time when the United States had “the best in the world.”

“Engineers are important not only in providing technology for today, but in providing hope, peace and security,” Orsak said.