The Benefits (and Limitations) of Semiconductor-University Collaborations

July 31, 2020 by Kayla Matthews

Students benefit from a host of educational resources from sponsoring semiconductor companies. But can this corporate influence end up limiting EE education?

It's not uncommon for major silicon brands to create sponsorship arrangements with universities or specific engineering departments. 

These partnerships can promote research opportunities and educational funding to respective schools. They also benefit students by providing industry networking opportunities—for instance, in opening internship opportunities.

But while many benefits exist in semiconductor-university collaborations, there are some drawbacks to be mindful of as well. 


Research Opportunities

One of the primary ways universities benefit from teaming up with semiconductor companies is that they receive more resources for research. For instance, Xilinx has created research clusters at four leading universities around the world.


The four participating universities

The four participating universities acting as "research clusters" for Xilinx's adaptive compute program. Image used courtesy of Xilinx

The company's intention is to advance programs associated with adaptive compute acceleration. The partnership focused on hardware improvements, and it allows professors from the chosen universities to head the programs at their facilities.

The positive side of this approach is that electrical engineering students and teachers can directly influence advancements that affect the silicon sector. A possible drawback is that students might become accustomed to the provided hardware, making their educations too brand-specific. 

In another pairing, NVIDIA provided the University of Florida with a $50 million gift to build the fastest artificial intelligence supercomputer.

While such donations provide researchers with more resources to succeed at projects, it's unclear how prominent a role the semiconductor sponsor has on the actual research coming out of the university.


Supplemental Educational Opportunities

Many arrangements between universities and semiconductor companies include complimentary or discounted educational materials. For example, the Xilinx University Program provides free teaching and training materials, as well as opportunities for professors to attend Xilinx workshops. 

In another recent instance, ON Semiconductor continued its push to facilitate STEM education through local partnerships. It participated in and supported a pitch competition at Arizona State University that included students from almost 50 institutions. 


Kyle Squires and Bill Amelio

The dean of ASU's engineering school Kyle Squires (left) and Avnet CEO Bill Amelio (right) at the university's third ASU Innovation Open. Image used courtesy of Charlie Leight/ASU Now

It's easy to see how arrangements like these can benefit students. They get mentoring and networking opportunities while working alongside peers. If semiconductor companies also provide free educational resources such as books, kits, or event access, students and teachers can access benefits that may have otherwise been too expensive. 


University-Company Talent Acquisition 

Universities and semiconductor companies have a shared interest in fostering more interest in an electrical engineering career.

For example, HZO sponsors the Accelerate to Industry program at North Carolina State University. HZO's CEO recently spoke to an audience of the school's graduate and post-doctorate scholars about career opportunities. 

Semiconductor companies may have a more direct role in students' paths after graduation, too. International semiconductor giant TSMC hosts a talent incubator program. Students selected to participate in it follow a TSMC-approved curriculum, and the best performers have internship and interview opportunities. 


TSMC's course plan for National Tsing Hua University students admitted into its incubator program.

TSMC's course plan for National Tsing Hua University students admitted into its incubator program. Image used courtesy of TSMC

South Korea's Sungkyunkwan University, which has a partnership with the Samsung Group, offers a curriculum that specifically fits Samsung's needs. That arrangement saves on training time for the people Samsung hires. The company's scholarship programs also reward promising talent. 

According to a critique of the Sungkyunkwan University-Samsung alliance, Samsung representatives can be involved in the management of Sungkyunkwan University, too. The company provides aptitude tests that some of the university's employees must pass before getting hired. Much of the school's equipment comes from Samsung's brand umbrella, and the cafeteria even links to Samsung's theme park division.

When corporate sponsors start influencing what students learn, it's possible that the pairings can potentially limit instructors' ability to expose students to a variety of lab equipment and components. 


Industry Connections vs. Unbiased Education

When semiconductors align with universities, the results are not wholly positive or negative in most cases. For example, these pairings could make it easier for some electrical engineering students to land jobs. However, learners could also become too dependent on company-specific equipment and products, limiting their fluency with other brands in the long haul. 

When semiconductor companies invest in research, the associated achievements could bring more attention to the universities carrying out the work. That increased visibility could position the institution as a thought leader, promote more funding, and attract more students and faculty members. 


University of Florida and NVIDIA

Together, the University of Florida and NVIDIA are planning on building "the world’s fastest AI supercomputer in academia." Image used courtesy of NVIDIA

It's vital for school representatives who agree to such pairings to ensure they are exposing students to general engineering concepts beyond a sponsoring company's specific protocol. These representatives must strike a balance of industry connection vs. unbiased education that isn't too company- or product-specific. 



Did you work directly with a sponsoring semiconductor company during your education? What was your experience? Share your thoughts in the comments below.