Integration takes varied forms at the National Science Foundation. One big focus at the NSF is on integrating electronics with other technologies. Another is to blend research with education on both the primary and secondary levels.
But first and foremost, those who plan the agenda on the federal level are thinking about ways that electronics engineers can work closely with engineers from other disciplines. Eventually, EEs would have enough expertise to develop tightly integrated systems on their own.
"There's a greater need to specialize in the integration of things so the programs are more than the sum of their parts," said Louis Martin-Vega, acting assistant director for engineering at the National Science Foundation (Arlington, Va.). "More important than first-rate technical and scientific skills is the ability to integrate. Engineering decisions always involve time and money and the stakes are higher now than in the past."
If electronics engineers are going to be integrating multiple technologies, the obvious first step is to train them in fields other than electronics. While some of this happens on the job, much cross-disciplinary learning must be taught at the university level. The NSF and some of the leading universities have already started to address that need, beginning with a look at their curriculum and the requirements for majors and minors.
One key change is that colleges will need more diversity in their staffs to account for the various fields of interest. That means universities will have to start thinking about hiring professors based on their knowledge of the topic, not just on their teaching background. In many cases, it isn't critical to have a professor who has specialized in electronics teaching EE students.
"At some of the universities, they're not saying what slots to fill, like an EE educator, but what are the major fields they want to grow. If you're looking at, say, nanotechnology, you recruit critical mass in that even though the people themselves may reside in different departments," Martin-Vega said. "You want a constellation of stars, with a number of senior faculty and younger professors scattered across different disciplines in the specific area of interest."
That provides some cross-pollination for students as well as for professors who do teach the more traditional EE courses. Underscoring the interdisciplinary nature that is coming to education, Martin-Vega noted that Cornell has a center for nanobiotechnology, which isn't exactly a traditional area for EEs. However, "It's heavily driven by people whose background is in electronic engineering."
These changes are occurring slowly, so it will be a few years before large numbers of students are touched by the interdisciplinary work, even at the large universities. Although it takes a few years to change the curriculum and run students through the revised schedule, the changes are occurring quickly, given the slow timetable mandated by the four-year schooling period. The modifications will begin at the higher levels, flow down to the broader lower levels as professors and faculty figure out what works and what doesn't.
|Louis Martin-Vega of the National Science Foundation believes that the NSF can improve research and education by integrating many levels. |
"What you're going to find, when people start talking about the need to create more integrated disciplines, is that what changes first is not with undergraduates but at the master's level. Graduate courses eventually move to the undergraduate levels," Martin-Vega said. "We're seeing things in the EE areas that were available only at the master's level a few years earlier. It isn't so much that people are swapping their EE degree for one in nanotechnology, but that you will have undergraduate students in electronic engineering who have been exposed to nanotechnology."
Nanotechnology is only one of the fields that is becoming intertwined with electronics. In some cases, these technologies need microprocessors or other components to be truly effective. But Martin-Vega noted that as electronics becomes increasingly more complex, designers will have to borrow concepts from other fields. Many researchers are already looking at life sciences for ways to continue improving the speed and performance of computer and communication architectures. Martin-Vega feels this trend is destined to gain.
"That everyone in engineering will be more exposed to life sciences is a no-brainer. A lot of basic principles associated with life sciences are starting to become the core of computers and communications," he said. "There are some discussions that Moore's Law will only go another 10 years. What will keep us on the path when that comes is driven more by life sciences principals than physics principals."
The NSF has a broad charter with many goals, so the foundation itself has a multidisciplinary staff and agenda. A big part of this focus is pure research, but there's also an awareness that discoveries will be rare and somewhat useless if there isn't a continuing supply of people who understand both the principles of the emerging technologies and how to implement them in the real world.
"One of the things we try to emphasize is that NSF is as much about creating a world-class workforce as it is about discovery. Our feeling is that if you start with people and develop a diverse, innovative workforce, that workforce will really produce ideas. We have to provide the tools to facilitate this," said Martin-Vega.
Though his job title is misleading, Martin-Vega has control of NSF's programs in broad areas of the technical world.
"The title 'assistant director' gives the impression that there is a director, but in reality there isn't. All the senior management team are assistant directors," Martin-Vega said. "I oversee all activities of the engineering directorate, which itself has a budget of a little less than $400 million."
That budget has to address both research and education, which has prompted some to wonder if the two don't compete for the limited supply of dollars. Martin-Vega doesn't see it that way at all.
"Research and education are not competitive," he said. "A lot of what we do is the intersection between the two. A premier program is our engineering research centers program, which started with the idea of bringing together universities and industry."
A newer aspect of the integration of research and education is to bring primary educators and collegiate researchers together. In the last few years, NSF has put more effort and money into exposing primary teachers more to the latest developments in technology.
He noted that there was a lot of recruiting of science and technology teachers during the 1960s and that many of them are now retiring, making this a time when "a lot is happening." Martin-Vega hopes he can make a change as this big replacement period goes forward. While most in education say improving math and science education is the way to help prepare children for technical careers, he is thinking a step beyond that.
"At the K-12 level, what's done to seed interest in kid's minds so they'll go on in engineering and science is in general science and math. For all practical purposes, there's very little engineering education. But most engineers would agree that they are principles and concepts in the way they think. That is very lacking in K-12," he said.
Although educating youth is of critical importance to the nation, there's a growing awareness that education doesn't stop after college.
"There's increased interest in continuing education at NSF," Martin-Vega said. "Developing a portfolio is a challenge that we are still working on. Many universities are being challenged, often by their alumni, to develop even more lifelong learning programs. "
There's a lot of excitement created when universities provide challenges that are open ended. Engineering should be exciting; ultimately, that is one thing that will continue to attract students to this profession," Martin-Vega said.