STEM, COVID, and the Silver Tsunami: ST Tackles Engineering Education
The next generation of engineers is not only under huge pressure to gain experience in a variety of EE fields—they're expected to do so in daunting circumstances. Here's how ST aims to help.
A global pandemic, a paucity of incoming STEM students, and an impending wave of retiring engineers leaving the workplace. This is the grim reality of what awaits young engineers when they join the industry.
Questions abound for these next-generation designers: Which specialty is right for them? Which skillset should they prioritize? How can they get hired right out of school? And how can they be possibly gain the necessary skills in a situation where access to electronics labs is reduced or completely absent?
This is where industry companies have begun to step in.
In 2018, STMicroelectronics developed a global task force to develop the company's interaction with STEM education. Part of their initiative has been the deployment of what they call a MOOC (or massive open online course) program, which has found newfound purpose in the age of COVID-19 as academia is forced to move into the digital realm.
AAC had the chance to speak to John Rossi, Vice-President of Strategic Marketing for STMicroelectronics' Americas region, about the challenges young engineers face and how an industry giant like ST sees itself helping to shape the education process.
STMicroelectronics' John Rossi
Rossi's experiences with engineering education stem from a list of personal accomplishments. He received his BSEE from Tufts University, his MSEE at Yale University, and his MBA from Boston University, lending him a perspective that helps guide ST's engagement with students.
So far, ST's engineering education curriculum—developed in partnership with universities—has served about 2,000 students at over 15 universities. The program aims to prepare young engineers by combining hands-on experience with ST hardware with online accessibility.
The Struggle to Replace Retiring Engineers
"The biggest change in engineering education over the last years is the move from textbooks to immersive learning," Rossi begins. "Educators have found a great balance by combining inspiring hands-on work in cooperation with core fundamentals. They’ve moved in this direction as engineering enrollment has declined over the past several years."
Wait, declining? This is a startling concept, given the push for STEM education over the past decade.
This issue is compounded by the fact that engineers are also continually retiring.
According to the most recent report from ST at the time of writing, "Opportunities linked to STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics] are expected to grow in the coming years, especially in technical engineering roles, as the ‘baby boomer’ generation approaches retirement. So attracting more young people to STEM is a priority."
This coming wave of retirements is often referred to as the "silver tsunami"—an aptly ominous name for a situation that may leave several technical fields bereft of skilled workers.
Part of addressing this decline in STEM enrollment is ST's policy of educating "at all levels"—grade schools, universities, adult education—with an emphasis on hands-on learning.
The Hire-ability of Immersive Learning
So what makes hands-on, immersive education so important? Rossi believes it has to do, at least in part, with hire-ability:
"...an engineer that can demonstrate an ability to jump into the details of a project will get hired quickly. And, like the experience they are getting now in universities, performing hands-on work in their job keeps engineers motivated and interested."
...an engineer that can demonstrate an ability to jump into the details of a project will get hired quickly.
Basically, a well-rounded engineer with a multi-discipline skill set and hands-on experience is an attractive hire.
Rossi explains that this combination of gaining high demand technical skills with hands-on collaboration can be found in several educational contexts, such as capstone projects and competitions/hackathons, which ST has led in the past.
Of course, hands-on experience is a rare commodity of late...
Along Came COVID
Obviously, one of the major obstacles to hands-on learning in recent months is the global COVID-19 pandemic, something Rossi has clearly thought about:
"Today’s environment, especially in the past few months, shows that online learning is a requirement. Still, there are challenges. For example, in hands-on curricula, students typically require extra support. At the same time, we have also seen that students are learning fast and can quickly adapt to change. No doubt in the years to come, technology platforms will evolve to allow higher levels of on-line interaction."
But it isn't just the format of the class that needs to adjust. Students who were once able to put their hands on hardware in a lab are now limited to learning from home.
Rossi says that ST has fielded requests for boards to help address this issue, something they've answered with the availability of versatile boards and kits that allow for various projects from a single ecosystem.
"For example," he says, "you can use the same ecosystem to design a motor control for an electric bike, or for developing an AI-based smart thermostat... The curricula are suitable for very different disciplines without having to adapt to different tools."
Education for Real-World Engineering
With the broad spectrum of EE specialties, how does ST decide which courses to prioritize?
"Generally, a course idea starts with an interest in an application field or a specific technology and an idea on how to adapt to a curriculum environment," Rossi explains. "The ideas then grow from the university and, collaboratively, grow inside ST, to where we can put learnings on the frame of the idea."
Finding the right institutions to partner with is a balancing act that depends heavily on finding the right professors.
Both institution and professor must match ST's focus for curriculum development, which has centered around what Rossi calls "core skills" in important fields:
- Embedded programming
- Control systems
- Motor control
- Artificial intelligence
(Next up on the docket is to provide similar programs for power electronics but, as Rossi puts it, "There is no shortage of ideas for courses. And ST is a big company." )
A snippet of the STM32 MOOCS (Massive Open Online Courses)
Part of working with universities, however, means being responsive to their partner institutions. "We see the ST Education curriculums to be the professors’ program and we encourage the universities to shape it."
Next-Gen Engineers Need to Know Embedded
ST's first curriculum launched was an Embedded Design course, which has had over 2,000 participants (so far), of which 60% of course graduates have been students. One of the reasons ST chose to address Embedded Design as their inaugural program is because it represents a huge shift in the industry for engineers.
When asked to identify the largest challenge facing next-gen engineers, Rossi pointed out that processing and managing large datasets is crucial: "Data is an important asset in today’s economy—and we’re creating and processing more than we’ve ever handled before."
Embedded systems can produce large data sets, he says, but can't store large amounts of data. Especially for IoT applications, this means reliance on the cloud as a storage resource for big data, which also brings into play both latency and data processing capabilities. According to Rossi, one of the core issues when it comes to engineering education in this space is how much more an engineer is required to know:
"Engineers are required to retain their expertise while expanding their skills and understanding to the system level. Also, given the rapid technological transformations, another challenge is being able to adapt and continue to learn new skills over time."
Engineers are required to retain their expertise while expanding their skills and understanding to the system level.
ST leans on their portfolio of products to educate engineers on the connectivity between cloud-based systems and hardware like sensors and microcontrollers, whether via Bluetooth mesh networks or ultra-low-power long-range sub-GHz radios.
The Embedded Design program, for example, was built around ST's SensorTile, a development tool released in 2018 as a way to help engineers learn about IoT design in a small form factor.
The STMicroelectronics SensorTile
Packed into its miniature form factor are an STM32 microcontroller, Bluetooth communications, inertial and environmental sensors, and a microphone. Rossi says that the SensorTile, like all of ST's boards and modules, is aimed at rapid development.
And it isn't just tenured electrical engineers working with embedded systems. Through education and accessible tools, the bar for entry to designing embedded systems has been significantly lowered.
"Now we’re seeing first-year engineering students—and even people who aren’t pursuing an engineering degree, per se—are using professional embedded system development platforms."
The Drive for Education
Educational programs like ST's can be difficult to develop and costly to implement. But Rossi insists that the results are worth it as ST aims to bridge the gap between industry and engineering education.
"For us, bridging the gap means making sure that students learn “real-life” engineering skills that can be applied directly to a job. ST’s education focus is on training students using real engineer-grade/commercial development tools. We believe from this, the whole ecosystem will benefit: Students will be better prepared for their career, and companies will benefit from having access to a more qualified workforce."
Have you taken an educational course developed by a company, either in school or for professional development? Share your experiences in the comments below.