Dan Blumenthal and John Bowers get to see both sides of the process. As founders of optical networking firm Calient Networks, they need well-rounded hires schooled in electronics, optics and other fields. But as university professors, they can see that engineering students aren't being groomed that way.
Students would get a better understanding of the real world if they could be involved in projects that span multiple subject areas, they contend. But it's hard to impress those ideas on neophyte undergraduates, and it's particularly hard to squeeze those projects into an already crowded curriculum.
"Today's electrical engineering education is very different from [what it was] when I was an undergrad," Blumenthal said. "Today, we've run into an extremely interesting situation where the demands from industry are to have students come out with a large breadth not only of basics but also of applications. And the number of applications has grown so much, it's hard to cram it all into a four-year degree."
Blumenthal's work is inherently multidisciplinary-it's part of the job description, in fact. He's assistant director, and Bowers the director, of the Multidisciplinary Optical Switching Technology (Most) Center in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at the University of California at Santa Barbara.
Most is part of the Pentagon's Multidisciplinary University Research Initiative, which considers research proposals that combine different academic areas to pursue a single goal. In the case of Most, the work combines electronics, optics, materials science, and networking, with plans to add mechanical engineering later.
|Founders of Calient Networks Blumenthal and Bowers look for breadth in new employees, but as professors they know they can't count on that. |
Some of the technology is seeing the light of day through Calient, which is developing an all-optical cross connect built of microelectromechanical systems (MEMS). Tiny mirrors get aligned into position to bounce light signals to the proper ports. The process requires electronics and optics expertise, but also computer systems, software, materials and reliability experts.
Startups are notorious for assigning multiple tasks to each employee, and that's true on the technical side, not just in administration, Blumenthal said.
"In a sense, a company like this is the combination of everything that one tries to teach in an electrical engineering school, plus the business component," Blumenthal said. "To get a multidisciplinary system-especially a vertically integrated system-to market is a huge challenge."
Bowers noted that despite optics' strong relationship to electronics-both involve electromagnetic signals, essentially-the two subjects involve different modes of thinking.
"The two fields are completely overlapping, but the specialty of optics narrows down very quickly on light. The optical engineer sees the world as different indices of refraction, whereas in electronics, everything is permeable," Bowers said. "I know in a lot of programs I've been in, the best educator is the one that blurs the distinction."
But while an optical engineer has to know his electronics, the reverse isn't true. Until recently, students saw little reason to pursue optical engineering, and that's led to a shortage of technical talent.
"Quiet times in an industry may lead to fewer people in the pipeline. When the industry ramps up, people aren't there, because students make decisions based on current events," Bowers said. "A lot of companies in the optics space at this point are drawing on a limited pool of talent," Blumenthal said. "It leads to some very interesting questions in education about how to make sure that talent is there when you need it."
The problem is the four-year lag: It's the incoming students who will take interest in a hot area, but they're four years away from applying for jobs. The trend holds for engineering in general.
"I don't think universities and high schools do a good enough job explaining where the world is going and where the needs are. Students often make decisions based on not understanding where the jobs are," Bowers said. "The challenge is to stay current and give them an education that they feel has value. In a certain area like optics, give them opportunities they just wouldn't have anywhere else: state-of-the-art research facilities, very current courses. "
At the same time, students eventually need to pick specialties. The question becomes: How long should they study the basics and sample different fields-and is it possible to keep taste-testing different fields once they've settled on a specialty?
Blumenthal's answer is to let students experience the discipline-melding they'll encounter in the outside world. Grants from associations such as the National Science Foundation have helped by emphasizing a breadth of study. "A lot of the grants we get from industry are extremely supportive of multidisciplinary research," Blumenthal said.