Engineering education: "What have you built?"

-August 30, 2016

As part of EDN's 60th anniversary, we're not just looking back, but looking to the future. Here by "future," I mean engineering education. We spoke with university professors to see how engineering education is changing to keep up with technology and with industry. If you'd like to look back on the state of engineering education in 2006, then see The future of engineering, originally published in Test & Measurement World's September 2006 issue.

For this installment, I met with Nicholas Kirsch, Associate Professor of Electrical & Computer Engineering at the University of New Hampshire. Prof. Kirsch specializes in wireless communications. His students often work at the UNH Interoperability Lab.

Are there enough engineers to meet the demand?
That question comes up often, especially with baby boomers retiring. The problem is not only replacing retiring engineers, but new technologies are developing that need new engineers.

What sort of new technologies?
There's a demand for people that can integrate hardware and software, not just design circuits. Everything is getting connected, there's the so-called IoT and who knows how that will pan out. We're also seeing the use of data in new ways. People are using data to optimize things and reduce costs. IoT and new data uses can have a positive effect on the environment.

Are your incoming students more "hands on" than they once were because of the maker movement?
I would argue that they are less hands on. I don’t have the answer as to why, but it's a trend. The maker spaces and movement may change that in five years. There seems to be less understanding, but with 3D printers and robotics teams, the hands-on student could become more prevalent.

What is industry looking for in engineering graduates?
Industry asks, "What did you build? What did you make?" It's not enough so master circuits and software. Employers want to see students be creative and innovative. Engineering departments need to create that environment.

If industry is interested in seeing what students have built, do today's engineering students still need the same theoretical knowledge? Do they need more than in the past?
You still need a solid grasp of the fundamentals. In my area of wireless communications, there's been an explosion of technology over the last 15 years. You can't learn that in one or two courses in your senior year. The technology is changing rapidly. We have to give our students the ability to learn how to learn. That's been the axiom of educators for a long time. We must instill in students the desire to learn.

When I asked an industry colleague about building things, he said "you can't possibly learn everything as an EE undergraduate to walk into a job and pick up a project on your first day. Employers are looking for the capacity to build something and to generate new ideas.

How do you see the role of the educator changing because of that? If students still need the theoretical background, but now must know how to build things, is there a tradeoff in what you teach?
We will be changing out curriculum to increase lab time, but it's more than that. We are asking more open-ended questions now. It's not enough to understand Ohm's law. Students need to build upon that knowledge in a more cohesive manner. A project-based track is where students can integrate analog and digital systems and build something with them.

Is the more theoretical track more for those looking for advanced degrees as opposed to those who go to industry with a bachelor's degree?
It doesn’t have to be a tradeoff. We have a lot of time dedicated to lab experiences. Students can use what they've learned in the classroom and apply it to solving a real problem.

We hear so much about IoT and 5G right now. How do you prepare students to understand wireless communications, even if that's not their chosen concentration?
We still have an analog world. Engineers still need to understand electromagnetic propagation, whether that's at 900 MHz or 60 GHz. They must understand the fundamentals of EM propagation. Once the signal leave the antenna, it will propagate. I've always focused on that. But as we look at the growing electronic systems, we see opportunities because of the needs for lower power and the ability to operate over wider frequency bands. It's important to understand the fundamentals of the analog and propagation part of wireless signals.

The other side is that we have advanced technologies compared to 15 years ago: multiple antennas, modulation schemes such as spread spectrum, etc. Students need to understand how those technologies work and the tradeoffs among them. Why use one technology over another? How does having eight antennas versus one improve performance at the cost of more power consumption? That goes back to being an engineer and a problem solver? We can add antennas, etc. What are the tradeoffs?

With wireless connectivity going into all kinds of things that had never been connected, do you have students who may not want to specialize in wireless, but have to know something about it because they will buy a module and integrate it into a system?
I haven’t seen that yet in universities, but I've seen that in industry. The day will come when you just pop a module into a system and you have communications. Right now, I have two undergraduates who know nothing about wireless communications, but I wanted them to be exposed to it because that's how we will network devices. To do the integration, we start by asking basic questions. They need to know the data rate they need for video and what's available right now that you can use. Another student is working on a project that tells you if a car is present or not. It needs very low bandwidth. What do we need to send that kind of data?

People may use a wireless module and assume that it just works, but it doesn't always work. Do you then have to teach troubleshooting and get out the spectrum analyzer?
We do. Last week, students asked "how do we know if this wireless device is transmitting?" That's when I told them about using a spectrum analyzer.

I'm also involved in software-defined radio. Several years ago, we discovered a USB stick for receiving digital television into a computer. Someone found out that you can tune the center frequency of the chip and get the baseband I and Q components of a signal. This device cost $10. We can use that as a spectrum analyzer over the 50 MHz to 1.7 GHz range. We used an android tablet to see when the devices we're building are transmitting. It's using 900 MHz. From that, the students can see that the signal has power and bandwidth. I then turned the antenna and let them see what happened as the coupling of the signal to the antenna changed. That let us talk about propagation.

What do you see industry wanting?
There is a list of grand challenges for the world. Food, healthcare, environment. EEs can make a difference. IoT is the next technology leap. We get through this by encouraging engineers to be creative. Look at problems from different viewpoints. Information is readily available, we have to teach how to process and use that information that's available.

The big issue with IoT is security. How do you get that through to a student making a low-power device that it needs privacy and security? Engineers that can take a more holistic approach will have an impact. The challenge is getting that broad approach.

How do you get people interested in engineering as a career?
People talk about encouraging high school students in engineering, but research shows that's absolutely too late. Research points to inspiring and encouraging young learners in preschool and elementary school. You can introduce inquiry and problem solving and how to use technology to solve a problem. Ease of access to maker spaces can encourage that, too.

I'm the chair of engineering projects and service within IEEE. It's a program that funds university student organizations to partner with high school and middle school students and nonprofits in their community to solve a problem. This cuts to the heart of using technology for the advancement of humanity. We can show the electrical engineers that technology can have an impact in their community. Students can build things and that helps high school students to see that being an EE is more than electrical lines overhead. It's about developing devices to use in the communities.

How do you respond when people say "Why go into engineering when communications is so good that we can get people in other countries for less money to do the job?"
As the breadth of knowledge knows, there will always be a need for engineers to come up with creative solutions to challenging problems. That's an opportunity for engineering educators. Another opportunity is on how to bring the formal language of doing research and make it more accessible to undergrads. PhD students need to be curious, but they need to know how to ask questions in a certain way. It's a mechanism for sharing that information with others. That needs to be accessible to other students so they can communicate. That's the other thing: communications.

With all these online courses, is the university obsolete?
I'm fully behind people learning online. But online, you don’t get the engagement with other people to learn how to learn and solve problems.

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