Electronic Design

Few U.S. EE Schools Teaching Environmental Design Requirements

How many EE schools in the U.S. cover the environmental legislation coming out of the European Union (EU), China, and other major world markets that will impact the design of electronic products? Not many, according to an informal and random survey of U.S. engineering schools by Electronic Design.

Georgia Tech? Its EE department doesn’t touch the topic, although its School of Materials Science and Engineering has turned out a highly publicized study on alternatives to using conventional solder for electronics manufacturers.

It’s pretty much the same story at Texas A&M University. “Maybe mechanical engineering or engineering technology covers it, but I am not aware of any EE or computer engineering course where they do this, so it must be a relatively brief mention,” said Duncan M. (Hank) Walker, a professor and graduate advisor in the Department of Computer Science at Texas A&M.

The problem, a University of Michigan professor said, is that it is just too difficult to add new material to the school’s EE program. “It’s a whole process to make any changes in courses, and you would have to eliminate something to make room for the new coursework. It’s a complicated process that involves assigning credits,” the professor said. Also, he added, the new courses would have to go through an accreditation service for approval.

One reason it’s not an issue at the school in EE courses, the University of Michigan professor said, is that printed-circuit board (PCB) design (wire wrap or other packaging technologies) is only covered in the context of lab assignments, not in lectures. “In general, we do not cover packaging technologies to any degree in undergrad courses,” he said. “In the past, the mechanical engineering faculty did research in semiconductor packaging and cooling, so their grad students would be exposed to these issues.”

Walker said that teaching EE students about emerging environmental directives that might impact their future design work raises a larger issue—what do EE and CE students learn about manufacturing? Computer engineers at Texas A&M get a very basic exposure to semiconductor processing in their first active device course, but anything else is elective.

“Our thinking is that undergraduate-required courses briefly touch lower design levels. We spend more time on higher levels of abstraction. When systems are billions of transistors, the ‘gate’ will be an IP block. Since PCBs don’t fall into the ‘everyone needs to know this’ category, it is an elective,” Walker said.

Unlike other EE departments, the EE program at Bradley University in Peoria, Ill., has begun to add the integration of sustainable electronic design to its curriculum. Brian D. Huggins, chairman of the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department at Bradley, said students must submit a memo annually on a contemporary technical issue in all of the 300-level and above lecture courses. In most of the electronics courses, students are required to consider an issue related to sustainable electronic design.

Last year’s assignment specifically required students in the program to read articles or Web sites detailing the EU’s Restrictions on Hazardous Substances (RoHS) and Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) directive, or the regulations themselves, and to write a memo in their own words summarizing the key points of the regulations.

Seniors at Bradley must also attend an Undergraduate Design Seminar where they work in teams to prepare a simple business plan for the development of a new product. The topic for the seminar in 2009 will be sustainable design.

“We don’t have a specific course on this topic,” says Jenshan Lin, a professor in the University of Florida’s Department of Electrical & Computer Engineering. “But the concept is more likely integrated in courses for practical design experience, such as the Senior Design and Integrated Product and Process Design Programs.”

The Senior Design Program lets students to choose their own design project with the goal of spending at least part of their senior year practicing real, industry-sponsored work. This not only improves their engineering education, it also enhances their opportunity for employment.

Professor Lin additionally is working on a research project sponsored by WiPower, a company based in Altamonte Springs, Fla., to create a universal wireless charging platform to eliminate the waste of many wall-wart chargers for the many portable electronic devices that many people now carry.

Meanwhile, one EE student at the University of Central Florida School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science spent “significant time” being instructed on what materials are restricted in Lockheed-Orlando’s products while he worked as an intern at the company. He also worked closely with students in the university’s environmental engineering school, though none of this work focused on electronics design.

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