Electronic Design

Today's Educational Challenges

It's no secret that it's getting harder to attract and retain engineering students. Communications/Networking Editor Louis E. Frenzel discussed these difficulties, and what they may hold for the future of the industry, with Albert L. McHenry, Dean of the College of Technology and Applied Sciences and Interim Provost of the Arizona State University Polytechnic Campus.

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

Not unlike the enrollment trends in electronics engineering technology programs throughout the United States, the enrollments at Arizona State University's Polytechnic Campus have been in a state of slow decline during the last 10 years. In the late 1990s, we made the adjustment of adding computer engineering technology to the EET Department. The addition of a curriculum focus in digital hardware and computer networks reversed the trend to one of slow growth. The added concentration in microelectronics manufacturing also contributed to the change to a growth pattern. However, the evolving pattern of increasing emphasis on software in every area of our industry caused the program enrollment to become more skewed toward computer software each year. The current situation is such that traditional electronics engineering technology programs are in serious enrollment decline due to automation and CAD processes that make the activities of the field almost invisible to prospective students and their parents. It is difficult to see anything but that trend continuing into the future.

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

Our current efforts are focused in three areas. The first area is to acknowledge the volatility of the EET curriculum and to continuously address the program outcomes in an attempt to keep as close as possible to the desire skill sets specified by industry. Second, we meet formally with industry advisory boards on a regular basis to guide our special focus areas and to minimize the knowledge and skill distance needed and that produced in our graduates. Since time horizons are so short and workforce productivity so critical, job readiness is a high-value outcome that graduates can take to the bank. And third, we work with the local high school districts with the goal of modifying the curriculum to motivate and better prepare high school graduates for engineer and engineering technology college programs. Our high school curriculum intervention is aimed at getting Project Lead The Way adopted as a major component of the program of study.

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

Our high schools nationwide are just beginning to make the programmatic adjustments needed to supply the number of high school graduates with the motivation and preparation required to make EET program faculty comfortable with their first-year students. Special curriculum interventions such as Project Lead The Way need to be adopted as a major component of high school curriculum nationwide.

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

This situation is a legacy of our past. Our society was built on low-technology manufacturing and agriculture. Our developmental processes have been deliberately structured for a large blue collar and service workforce and a small high-end college educated leadership and owner/operator elite. The changes in the nature of work brought about by the impact of rapid technological development and automation. Today, the skill set need for workforce viability is significantly different from that of just 20 years ago. Our elementary and secondary schools have not kept pace with the change, largely because we lived it but did not see it. So our young people don't have early motivators or role models in school. They are told that these fields are very difficult and only for the nerds. There are very few opportunities for young women and minority men or women to get engaged with the fun of science and technology at an early age. These great negatives prevent them from getting started early enough to fully develop the knowledge and skills that support a STEM career.

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

There is a problem of retention that is driven by the expectation of the curriculum structure and the lack of high school preparation for it.

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

Our EET students are interested in careers in small technology manufacturing, electronic systems, and alternative energy.

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

We made a major curriculum change in the 2006 academic year. We added a BSEET degree concentration in alternative energy with special focus on photovoltaic and fuel-cell systems.

Are any major changes to courses or the curriculum anticipated soon?

Yes. We are changing both, and they are being implemented with new faculty expertise for the fall 2006 semester.

What is the usual impetus for changing a program?

The changes are driven by our careful dialog with industry about its workforce skill set needs. The other force that drives our change process is student demand.

Does your department work with an industry advisory group?

Yes! We have one for each of the disciplines in play.

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

Industry and business leaders work with us in a formal way in support of our industrial advisory board (IAB) process and through their representatives provide information, internships, supplies, and useful equipment.

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

It is our goal is to have them keep us near the state of the art and to help us anticipate major changes in direction.

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

Yes, we have just initiated significant change using the guiding IAB information.

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.)

ABET is more helpful than it is a hindrance. The ABET processes are useful in matters of quality and peer status.

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

We are a "research" institution, and applied research and industry-type development projects all serve them as scholarship activities. Such engagement is very valuable to all of the program constituents.

What percentage of your enrollments come from AAS degree community college graduates?

Through the 1980s and 1990s, our undergraduate student body was about 60% community college transfer students with about 35% having completed the associate degree. Today we offer a special degree, the bachelor of applied science degree, for AAS degree holders. It is a true 2+2 degree structure and serves the need for a less than ABET accredited BS degree for these students who seek careers as electronics infrastructure managers.

At ASU? Nationally?

Because of the well developed relationship between ASU and the Maricopa County Community College District, we have a tradition of large numbers of students with some transfer credits. Because we are such a large institution, the percentage of the total that holds AS or AAS degrees is low. However, the total with some community college credit is quite high.

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

Our graduates are getting several job offers upon graduation and are averaging approximately $60,000 starting.

Do most BSET graduates get jobs as engineers? What kind? (This may be another loaded question. The EE department probably does not want to hear the real answer. There really is no "technologist" as such. I have never seen such a position defined by industry or an ad for such a person.)

We have collected job classification data from our graduates over the years, and there have been very few ever reported holding a job title with the term technologist in it. I work with and talk to leaders in the electronics industry all the time, and they never tell me about their openings for technologist. Therefore, our EET graduates are not distinguishable by industrial job title.

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

The major issues are associated with answers to these questions: To best serve our industrial and student clients, what do we teach and how do we teach?

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

I do believe that our technological lead is in jeopardy because innovation is based in the intellectual engagement of large numbers of people who are competent in the transdisciplinary application of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Preparation must start early and needs large numbers of Americans.

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

I would require that a college algebra and trigonometry course be taught using one or more of today's capable equations solving software packages.

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