EE Times: What's the impact on your students?
Wei: They get really alarmed! They think hard about how they can compete. Many have made a decision to go to graduate school, and some decided to study a foreign language, such as Chinese.
These are undergraduate students, usually juniors. When they come back, they have to share lessons they've learned with their fellow students. So they make presentations to a full house in our engineering auditorium.
EE Times: Have you gone to India yet?
Wei: No, we're thinking that next year we'd like to bring students to India.
EE Times: Who pays for all this?
Wei: We have [corporate] sponsors. We got together to talk about offshoring, and we asked, can we do something about it so young people will have opportunity to prepare themselves for this new reality? What's the best way to teach them about globalization? We concluded the best way is to just send them to China and India to see globalization in action.
EE Times: What EE tasks are most likely and least likely to go offshore?
Wei: What's most likely to go offshore is functional engineering tasks that can be defined very well and don't require much interaction. The tasks that cannot be offshored easily are those closer to the cutting edge of technology. For example, we have a very strong analog industry here [in the United States], and the design talent is here. Digital design can be automated with tools. The good news is that everything is going analog.
EE Times: Speaking of globalization, where are your engineering students from?
Wei: The undergraduate population mostly comes from northern California. But the graduate students are mainly from overseas, primarily India.
EE Times: Why aren't more U.S. undergraduates going on to graduate degrees?
Wei: Our undergraduate students will quite often work after graduation. If they return to school to study, they usually sign up with one of our off-campus degree programs. Some are MSEE degree programs, or joint MBA and MSEE programs. [Graduate] students who come to campus full-time are usually students on visas.
EE Times: Is there a need to attract more U.S. students to engineering?
Wei: Definitely. If we want knowledge-based innovation, we really need to have students with engineering or science backgrounds. With the strong economic development in China or India, students who come to study here may go back. So we really have to develop our indigenous talent.
You hear all kinds of statistics, but here we're talking about 60,000 engineering graduates per year. In China it's 600,000; in India, 350,000. People sometimes say that all the U.S. engineering students are four-year graduates, and China's 600,000 [total] includes different levels of training. But if you look at the numbers, you can see the U.S. participation rate is low. Here we have 300 million people and China has 1.3 billion, so the population ratio is 4 to 1 but the technical-engineer ratio is 10 to 1.
EE Times: How do you attract U.S. students?
Wei: We try to work with high schools to expose students to engineering. One of the challenges we're facing is whether our students are math- or science-ready when they leave high school. The general statistics are not that good.
EE Times: Are you trying to attract minorities to engineering?
Wei: Yes, Hispanic students and women students. We're trying to attract them as well as retain them. With these underrepresented groups, they don't have role models or mentors to guide and encourage them. We're spending considerable efforts to address those issues.
EE Times: Some engineering schools are focusing on multidisciplinary engineering, and looking at ways of going across electrical, civil and mechanical domains to solve specific problems. Is this part of your focus?
Wei: Definitely. We're in an early stage of developing a bioengineering program. You have to look at electrical, mechanical and chemical materials, and the target is biological systems. We knew from day one it would be multidisciplinary.
EE Times: Can multidisciplinary engineering give U.S. students a competitive edge?
Wei: Yes. In the Asian schools we visit, admission to college is through a competitive examination process. The flip side is that you tend to do some rote learning. You worry about problems that will appear on your exam. That will hamper creativity. Also, the department boundaries are firmer in Chinese universities. Here, where we have the opportunity to develop new programs such as bioengineering, we're in a good position to break down the boundaries.