Electronic Design

Teaching The Next Generation

Where will tomorrow's engineers come from? What challenges will they face? More importantly, what are today's colleges doing to prepare them for those challenges? Communications/Networking Editor Louis E. Frenzel discussed these issues with Anthony P. Ambler, chairman of the Department of Electrical & Computer Engineering and B.N. Gafford Endowed Professor in Electrical Engineering at the University of Texas, Austin.

Have enrollments been up, down, or flat over the years 2000 to 2006? Why? What are your projections for future enrollments?

Our undergraduate enrollments have been a little up and down but for no particular strategic reason other than the vagaries of the admissions process. Our standard enrollment target is for about 400 freshmen. This year we are looking a little down even though the applications are up. Not too sure why at this moment, but we are trying to be more "selective" by requiring a certain level of math proficiency before we accept people. This is fairly new, but it does mean that we won't be turning people away quite so much at the end of the first year because they will be better prepared. Those that don't make the cut we are trying to track and keep in touch with them so they can still reach their goals.

What does your department do to help recruit students into the program?

The department plays no direct role in the admissions process. It is handled centrally by the university. However, we are trying our best to get better at recruiting by playing a bigger role in open days, engineers days, and also the Edison Lecture Series, which has now happened twice and is aimed at middle/high schools to excite them about electrical engineering. But it's a tough job, as we need to involve the schools and the kids' parents as well. We try to give them the big picture, tell them about careers in engineering, likely salaries (pretty good), opportunities to go into research, but also as a basis for any other career you care to think of. Other degree programs immediately limit your opportunities for a career, but engineering (particularly electrical engineering) does not.

Are high schools generally preparing students satisfactorily for an engineering program?

No! But they don't have the time or resources to be able to. That's why we are trying to link up with the schools and school districts to do something. The Edison Lecture Series, something that comes from my previous heritage (the Faraday Lecture Series in the U.K.), has been shown to lead to a 20% increase in high schoolers wanting to study engineering at college level. We need to be able to work with the schools more in this regard, but we're trying.

Why do so many high school students lack interest in an engineering or scientific career?

I'm sure it's a lack of knowledge, understanding, and exposure to it. It's also the boredom factor in the school environment (i.e., you've got to study math and physics, but there's little time to show them where it all fits, how Ohm's Law works in a microprocessor, for example) and not enough time for what the school board requires. The universities and industry have a duty to help here.

Is there a retention problem with students (program too difficult, etc.)?

Yes, but it's getting better. I mentioned the recent requirement for a particular background in math before being allowed in to study EE. That is helping. The system did not help the kids previously by allowing unprepared students to enroll in engineering. We're also trying to find new ways to keep the enthusiasm for EE by bringing as much of the stuff they came to study (the fun/interesting stuff) into the freshman year.

What technical specialties within the department are students selecting most? Least?

We're overloaded in wireless/telecoms, computer engineering/chip design/computer architecture, but less so in software engineering. Recently there has been a growth in the energy systems area since it started to introduce a lot of material in renewable energy.

When was the last time that a major change was made in the curriculum?

I think that was five years ago when the results of a major rethink was done, having taken around 18 months. There have been several changes/updates since then.

Are any major changes to courses or curriculum anticipated soon?

We're constantly looking at it and making changes. We're about to start another review process. Things that may be happening will be to look at energizing the power curriculum (excuse the intended pun) some more given its already successful moves, and also to look at creating a five-year masters program. This latter "thing" seems to be what we should have already done so that we can provide better prepared graduates for industry. There's also a thought in some people's minds that we're offering too many classes at the moment rather than concentrating on the core material in more depth, but we shall see.

What is the usual impetus for changing a program?

Keeping pace with technology, needs of industry, change in faculty interests/backgrounds, breaking new ground, changes in interests of the students.

Does your department work with an industry advisory group?

Of course, and they are very important to us. Going back 10 years, it was they who made us move into software engineering. I'm not sure it would have happened at that time if they hadn't made a strong statement. At another level it was an industry advisory board who first suggested that we look at engineering management as a topic area. More recently we use them as participants in our hiring at all faculty levels and particularly for chair professors. They are very important to us.

Does industry voluntarily supply you with suggestions and needs, or do you have to solicit them?

Both. It is a two-way street. I can approach them at any time on any topic, and vice versa.

What would you like to see from industry, if anything?

They already participate in a big way, providing resources, adjunct professors, guest speakers. I know people I can go to ask for anything and it is usually forthcoming.

Is the program generally in line with what industry needs today? How do you know?

I believe so. That's our job, to provide graduates at all levels that U.S. industry will want to hire. We feel pretty comfortable in this given our industry advisory board, but also unsolicited comments from our recruiters. During the recent downturn in recruiting, several of them told us that they were still recruiting but only from their top six or seven schools, and that included us.

Is the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET) a help or a hindrance in building a relevant program? (This may be a loaded question, but I have heard that it hurts more than it helps. Yet I know you cannot not have ABET's blessing.)

Very loaded! The basic aims of ABET I totally applaud. They are trying to get us to do what we should be doing anyway! But it's been taken over by the bureaucrats who delight in paperwork. The preparation we had to do for the visit was enormous and took up an inordinate amount of time for our faculty, who have better things to do. The reviewers themselves demonstrated that there was no consistency in their process. They were looking for any holes in ours rather than looking for what was good, in my opinion.

What does your faculty do for professional development/continuing education to stay current?

We are a top-10 ranked department, which is achieved by the level and quality of the research work the faculty do. That alone ensures that we stay relevant and up to date. It's the strongest reason there is for ensuring resources are made available for the faculty to continue their research, which directly and immediately strengthens the undergraduate and graduate programs and provides the best recruits for U.S. industry. The faculty also publish and present their work at conferences where they can meet and discuss their work with other leaders from around the world.

Do BS graduates get good job offers, or do they have to search long and hard for work?

Our graduates are sought after--not a problem for our graduates!

What is the most critical issue facing your department and other EE departments in the U.S.?

We are facing a number of constraints. Undergraduate enrollments may start to go down as applications drop. We have already seen this in computer science across the country with drops of as much as 50%. We are doing what we can to limit this potential trend in EE. The other issue is the continued push for more administration by faculty to justify their existence and which will limit their creativity and ultimately destroy what they were employed to do in the first place.

Is the U.S.'s technological lead really threatened, and how can education help?

I believe it is! As someone who came to the U.S. 10 years ago from the U.K., I do see the possible seeds of a reduction in technology lead. 9/11 created extra hurdles and barriers for overseas students to come to the U.S. to study. Typically, these students were/are the cream of their countries who had already been educated to bachelor's level in their home nations at a very high level. They then came to the U.S. to study for master's and PhD degrees, enhancing the reputation of the U.S. universities, and then stayed on to work in U.S. industry. The U.S. thus benefited is such an enormous way. It didn't pay for the basic education of these people (their less wealthy home nations did), so the U.S. saved itself billions of dollars in educational costs, and the resultant quality of their work was/is incredible. It is their immigrant labor that has made U.S. industry what it is today, especially in the high-tech fields where U.S. schools cannot provide enough engineers to satisfy the needs of U.S. industry. Reducing the availability of a U.S. research education to overseas students will reduce this lead. Nevertheless, it does highlight the need for us to work with our own citizens and schools to encourage more people to want to do engineering.

If you could make one new change in the curriculum or department, without cost, faculty resistance, or other opposition, what would it be?

A new building, please!

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