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Intel recently broke ground on two massive chip factories near Columbus, Ohio, that aim to employ 3,000 people. Over the next 10 years, Intel has pledged $50 million to invest in EE education programs in the area to help train the engineers the industry will need. Intel expects the project’s first phase to produce nearly 9,000 graduates for the industry and provide more than 2,300 scholarships over three years.
This past July, SkyWater Technology—250 miles west of Columbus, Ohia, in West Lafayette, Indiana—said it chose an industrial park adjacent to Purdue University’s West Lafayette, Indiana, campus to build a $1.8 billion chip fab that is expected to create 750 jobs in five years after it opens.
These new investments in the Midwest—an area not known for semiconductor research and manufacturing—is bringing new opportunities for nearby colleges and universities to upgrade their EE education programs and help keep talent locally.
EE Times identified four EE education programs in or within 250 miles of Columbus to watch as Intel and SkyWater’s chip fabs are being built: Ohio State University, Central State University, Purdue University, and the University of Michigan.
Ohio State University
As Intel began the construction of the two chip factories in Ohio, the company awarded three grants totaling $4.5 million to Ohio State and its partners—to prepare a highly skilled and diverse semiconductor industry workforce.
“Intel is steadfast in its commitment to a diverse workforce, and we are prepared to help them realize that vision in Ohio,” said Ayanna Howard, dean of the College of Engineering and leader of the initiative, told EE Times. “Along with partners throughout the state, including HBCUs, community colleges and career tech centers, we will build a holistic, inclusive semiconductor educational ecosystem that welcomes students from all backgrounds.”
U.S. News & World Report has ranked Ohio State as one of the top 10 public universities for innovation—a ranking that identifies universities with leading approaches to curriculum, campus life, technology, and facilities. Last year, Smart Manufacturing magazine named Howard one of the 20 most influential academics in the world.
With $3 million of the funding, Ohio State will lead a multi-institutional, interdisciplinary education and research center to advance the fabrication and development of semiconductors and next-generation device technologies, the school said last month. Ohio State’s partners include: Ohio University, the University of Cincinnati, Central State University, Wilberforce University, Denison University, Kenyon College, Oberlin College, Ohio Wesleyan University, and the College of Wooster.
The Center for Advanced Semiconductor Fabrication Research and Education (CAFE) will lay the foundation for a highly skilled and diverse semiconductor manufacturing workforce through experiential learning frameworks for both graduate and undergraduate students. Through interdisciplinary research, the institution will also pave the way for breakthrough device technologies, according to a blog post published by Ohio State.
The College of Engineering is working to bring more students from different disciplines into AI and machine learning, as the new factories will need more than just electrical engineers.
“From a graduate education and research perspective, we are drifting a lot more into interdisciplinary work,” Balasubramaniam Shanker, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at Ohio State, told EE Times. “For example, a good portion of AI work resides in electrical engineering. It’s computer science, but it affects many different engineering fields. So, over some time, we will try to figure out how we can play a bigger role in other disciplines.”
Central State University
Central State University (CSU) is a big winner with a $17.7 million, three-year investment from Intel to educate the workforce the semiconductor company needs as it breaks ground on its Ohio chip fabs.
CSU, a Historically Black University in Southwest Ohio, will get about $1.3 million to lead the training project and create a more diverse workforce and first-year engineers for Intel, Debbie Alberico, the interim director of public relations at CSU, told EE Times.
Currently, CSU does not have a graduate EE education program. But its undergraduate classes on computer science prepare students for joining the workforce and continuing their education in other schools.
The computer science curriculum includes a general-interest course in computer literacy and specialized topics for computer science majors—in software engineering, computer architecture, system management, and computer networking. The curriculum aims to prepare students for the requirements of the modern-day knowledge economy or for relevant graduate-program studies.
CSU’s cybersecurity-certificate program, offered by the College of Engineering, Science, Technology and Agriculture, is the gateway to developing the essential skills needed to be a “strategic data defender” capable of protecting an organization from highly disruptive cyberattacks, Alberico said.
The college offers opportunities for tutorial assistance, scholarships, internships, and research opportunities.
CSU President Jack Thomas said in prepared remarks that the university is “excited to work with Intel as a higher education partner to create a diversified workforce that represents the full spectrum of the United States.”
For decades, the trend of offshoring chipmaking to Asia has left the United States with minimal capacity. That also has negatively impacted the number of students in the U.S. choosing semiconductor engineering. Because software engineering and data science offered not just many more opportunities but also higher starting salaries, those two sectors have been drawing in more technical students.
Today, Purdue University is rolling out new courses and labs for undergraduates, a new master’s program, and a push to place students in chip company internships.
Purdue has state-of-the-art facilities, including the Birck Nanotechnology Center and nanoHUB, Mark Lundstrom, interim dean of engineering at Purdue, told EE Times in June. Purdue is poised to be an academic leader in semiconductor education, research, and industry partnerships, in part because it has more than 50 world-leading faculty members whose research expertise spans the spectrum of semiconductors and microelectronics, he added.
SkyWater’s plan to build a chip fab neighboring the Purdue campus is music to Lundstrom’s ears: “We’re an untapped talent source here in the Midwest,” he said. “If you draw a 275-mile radius around Indianapolis, 30% of the engineering degrees come from the universities within that radius. But there has yet to be much of the microelectronics industry here. We’ve trained talent for the industry, but our students go to the coast or Texas for jobs. But more and more companies are now thinking about where the talent is.”
Now that chipmakers are building in Indiana and Ohio, and the Biden Administration is acting to support onshoring of chip manufacturing via the CHIPS and Science Act passed in August, schools like Purdue that have giant engineering programs are stepping up their game.
“Last May, before we were confident that the CHIPS Act would be passed, we made a commitment that we’re going to make educating and developing a semiconductor workforce a priority,” Lundstrom said. “We’ve been teaching semiconductor courses for years, as many of our peers have. But this is a much more comprehensive, college-wide effort: Whether you’re a chemical engineer, mechanical engineer, materials engineer, electrical engineer, computer engineer, or scientist, it’s an effort to make students aware of the job opportunities.”
Purdue developed a two-track, chip-fabrication program focused specifically on semiconductors and microelectronics. “One track is to get into the lab and learn how you process silicon and make a chip. The other is chip design, which would be more for the electrical and computer engineers,” Lundstrom said “We’re simplifying that and bringing it down to a level where beginning students can design a silicon chip after their freshman year. The goal is to get students excited about it and continue along that track.”
Purdue is also partnering with several companies to create internships for freshman- and sophomore-year students—not just junior-year students.
University of Michigan
The University of Michigan is part of a multi-institution effort in a bid to create new courses for undergraduate students interested in bringing to fruition what some refer to as the “second quantum revolution”.
“Quantum technology is not new, but some of its secrets—including quantum entanglement and superposition—have been tamed to the point where engineers can take control and build reliable devices from various quantum materials,” Michigan Engineering wrote in a September blogpost. “This has brought society to what has been called the second quantum revolution.”
The goal of this course is to develop a broad understanding, appreciation, and literacy for the concepts, applications, materials, technological components and business and societal impacts of quantum information science and engineering (QISE), according to the University of Michigan’s blog post.
The school is one of five institutions involved in a two-year National Science Foundation initiative known as the Convergence Undergraduate Education in Quantum Science Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Mathematics (QuSTEAM). The program’s mission is to revolutionize quantum science education and foster a diverse, quantum-ready workforce.
“Quantum computing is a relatively new field, obviously, with a lot of excitement and hype and so on,” said Dennis Sylvester, senior associate chair for electrical and computer engineering at the University of Michigan. “There are different aspects to it. There’s obviously the very low-level quantum physics aspect and sort of the theory side—the idea of building devices that provide these capabilities based on entanglement. And then there’s more on the information theory and sort of the mathematical analysis side, and we’re attacking the problem at different levels.”
Sylvester went on to add that the university is currently exploring ways to expand the current curriculum to advance quantum science education.
“We have faculty from communications and information theory who are interested in developing classes. And then we have people coming from the pure quantum physics and devices side, developing courses trying to interest students at very different levels. We’re starting very early: Some of the classes we’ve been developing are junior-level classes. These aren’t just graduate classes. Even now, we have a special topics class, a one-time offering at the sophomore level. It’s probably a lot of juniors in that class, but it’s an early-stage undergraduate one.”
Video of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Michigan (Source: YouTube/Electrical and Computer Engineering at Michigan)
ML gets more emphasis in EE education programs
Last year, a team of three faculty members from the University of Michigan—Qing Qu, Laura Balzano, and Lei Ying—developed an upper-level undergraduate course in machine learning explicitly designed for electrical and computer engineering (ECE) students.
The Michigan ECE faculty expanded the machine learning curriculum while also devoting their expertise in physical and computational systems. Their goal was to provide more of a mathematical foundation for machine learning (ML).
This new course, “Principles of Machine Learning,” will be permanent beginning next year at the University of Michigan. While other classes are similar in content, there are significant differences.
“We work on shallow-power-circuit-design microarchitecture,” said Mingyan Liu, chair of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Michigan. “A lot of our friends are in the computer science side of the department. Energy efficient buildings, compute engines in a small and energy efficient form factor—that’s something we’ve been working on here for a long time.
“We have now created a sequence of data science courses. And the unique thinking behind that is to let students see how data science is applied in real engineering systems because of the curriculum’s proximity to physical engineering systems. We want to educate with our curriculum engineers who are literate in data—who understand why and how data can help them improve their engineering work. That has to start with understanding the engineering system, why you think data will help you, and how you acquire the data—all the way to data-driven decisions.”