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Climbing the Pyramid

Saving Engineering Education

When most of us went to engineering school, we planned to immerse ourselves in the ocean of technology.  Our education started with foundations of mathematics and science, and then, like some giant tech-history-TiVo, fast-forwarded us through centuries of experience and innovation to get us to a point somewhere near the state-of-the-art at the time of our graduation.

We soon learned that our engineering degree was simply a license to learn, however.  In an environment of exponential change (as evidenced by Moore’s Law), the actual technology we mastered in our educational process was probably obsolete before our first day of professional engineering work.  It’s not that our education wasn’t valuable.  It’s just that the part we needed had nothing to do with the using the TEGAS simulator, throwing down transistors on a CALMA station, or our mad FORTRAN coding skills.  

Technology is like a pyramid.  Each generation of engineers must first understand the architecture, then carry their stones to the top of that structure, building on the foundation of their predecessors.  As that pyramid grows, the climb gets more challenging for each subsequent stratum.  Today’s electrical engineering students start at the same level we all did – Kirchoff’s laws, Karnaugh maps, and Calculus.  However, they have to go zooming through countless layers of learning on top of those concepts – many of which didn’t exist even the year before.  Somehow, it all still has to fit in a four- – er, five- – uh, seven-year curriculum.  Just as the surface of the pyramid expands exponentially as the structure grows, so does the number and specialization of engineers required to create and sustain each new level of technology.  Even though most of us don’t have to worry much about simulated annealing algorithms for placement as we do our system-on-FPGA design, somewhere there has to be an engineer who has dedicated a major chunk of his or her career to understanding, applying, and furthering that concept in order for us to be successful at our job. 

At the same time, however, each layer of the pyramid brings us increased leverage and improved productivity.  Today, with a comparatively small amount of education, I can buy a $99 FPGA development board, download some free tools and IP, and create an immensely capable electronic system that only a decade or two ago would have required dozens of engineers and millions in development costs.  This hyper-productivity has given rise to a new breed of engineer – the solution surfer.  The solution surfer doesn’t understand or even care about the layers of technology underlying his or her project.  The solution surfer simply rides the crest of the technology wave, picking and combining the tools and IP required to achieve a desired result.  

Today, the landscape of engineering education is shifting.  Emerging countries have correctly discovered the value of engineering in moving their economies from agricultural to manufacturing to information.  Scores of new engineering institutions have sprung up around the globe, pumping out new engineers at a rapid pace.  While the quality of these programs obviously did not start at the level of the more established schools in the major technology centers, their curricula are improving fast.  These new additions to the engineering community stir complex, mixed reactions – ranging from outcries over “outsourcing” engineering work to lower-paid, less-qualified teams, to relief at the infusion of talent into the technology arena at a time of perceived drought.

The result of this rapid increase of engineering in emerging countries, coupled with a slow decline of interest in engineering disciplines in established technology centers, means we will see a geographic re-distribution of both engineering work and the economic rewards it brings.  New products and inventions will come from everywhere, rather than from just a few tech-savvy countries.  At the same time, dramatic increases in engineering productivity will allow us to solve difficult problems with ever-smaller investments of time and expertise.  Engineering will be distributed not just geographically, but in depth as well.  In order for the solution surfer to whip up a new mobile device that combines social networking and streaming video in one sleek battery-powered enclosure, there must also be a corresponding old-school engineer worrying about oxide thickness and current leakage in 28nm process transistors.  

We can’t plan the system for educating the engineers of tomorrow.  It has to evolve organically.  As soon as we lock ourselves into a model that assumes we know the problems to be solved, the tools available for solving them, or the specific skills required to create those solutions, we doom ourselves to fail.  Simply building an education system to “fill the job openings” misses the mark – as the highest value engineering comes from the creativity and innovation of the talented few that usually fall somehow outside the established education-recruitment-career track.  What we can do is to fuel the passion for science, mathematics, and technology in our youth.  We can rise above political and protectionist propaganda about the evils of outsourcing and instead direct our progeny to use their abilities to engineer a better world, regardless of where they were born.

As engineers, it is incumbent upon us to do more than our own work.  We must also give back to the community that created us.  Of course, we can support schools financially and politically, but the most important contribution we can make is ourselves.  By spending time with the engineers of tomorrow, we can help to impart the passion for problem solving and innovation that drove us into our own careers.  People are inspired by people much more than by concepts.  The guest lecture you give at the school, the nod of approval you give the intern, or the extra stretch of responsibility you assign to the new, fresh-out-of-college team member will pay rich rewards as that inspiration transforms itself rapidly into innovation.   Such contribution will have a much greater impact on the future of our discipline than any individual accomplishment we might make in our own careers.

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