IT has long been one of the least appealing career choices for the country's brightest sparks.

But engineering could now be growing in popularity, with an overwhelming number of top-notch candidates applying for a course at Nanyang Technological University (NTU).

The elite programme, which combines the study of engineering with business and the liberal arts, offers 50 places. But more than 400 people have applied each year since it started in 2011.

This year, one in three applicants is an A-level student with three As, which means they fall into the top 15 per cent in their age group. As a result, NTU is ready to boost the number of places to 70.

Part of the attraction of the residential Renaissance Engineering Programme is that students will get to graduate with two degrees - a Bachelor of Engineering Science and a Master of Science in Technology Management. They also get to spend a year at the University of California, Berkeley and take up internship opportunities in Silicon Valley.

The cost over the full 4-1/2 years is $125,000, but students pay only about half in fees, thanks to tuition fee subsidies from the Government.

Professor Teoh Swee Hin, who heads the programme, said some of the best professors from NTU's engineering and business schools are co-opted to teach. Class sizes are kept to about 10.

He said he hopes the course will nurture a new generation of well-rounded "renaissance engineers" - modelled after Leonardo da Vinci, who was also a painter and sculptor. They could then go on to become chief executives and chief technology officers. This approach is important as "many of the complex problems facing the world today need an inter-disciplinary solution", said Prof Teoh.

Prof Kam Chan Hin, associate provost in charge of undergraduate education at NTU, said he was pleased to see the programme attracting top students to engineering - a subject which has not been popular over the last few years. "In the past, engineering used to pull in the best students," he said.

First-year student Mi Muxin, who scored 4As for her A levels, was offered a place in chemical engineering at the National University of Singapore. But she picked the NTU course as she will get to learn about different fields in engineering before going on to choose her specialisation in her third year.

The 22-year-old said she originally considered specialising in chemical engineering but is now leaning towards electrical and electronic engineering. "I am still keeping my options open. Learning about the different aspects of engineering has opened my eyes to the many choices available to engineers."

Another straight-A student, 23-year-old Alex Chen, chose the programme over NTU's business and accountancy course. He said his internship at a bank made him realise an engineer's training can be applied to many other fields. "Why choose business alone when I can combine it with engineering? To me, it's combining the best of two degrees."

Prof Teoh said an engineering career can be a stepping stone to bigger things, adding that many chief executives in Singapore are trained in the discipline.

"There is a need to make young people realise the central role that engineers play. Just about every issue in the modern world, ranging from climate change to the treatment of diseases, needs an engineer's input."