Supporting the Future: Semiconductor Manufacturers Focus on College Training Resources
Though there are many advantages of semiconductor manufacturers investing in EE education through funding university programs and projects, there are also drawbacks to consider.
A primary objective for the electronics engineering industry is the design, development, production, and deployment of reliable semiconductor devices. To design and develop these devices, manufacturers need to hire highly skilled electronics engineers and train them to follow the specific procedures or protocols they adopt.
A high-level depiction of a basic R&D process. Image used courtesy of QualityInspection.org
As semiconductor technologies are constantly evolving, academic institutions should adequately prepare graduate students to meet the semiconductor industry’s rapidly changing demands. Partnerships between educational institutions and the semiconductor industry could thus be highly valuable since they could help prepare new generations of electronics engineers for the professional challenges they are likely to face in the future.
In recent years, several semiconductor manufacturers started investing in electronics engineering training programs to ‘growing’ the type of engineers that they would be happy to take on board in the future. In addition, some companies have been collaborating with students and academic faculty on research endeavors and lending them semiconductors that they can use for their projects.
New Programs Funded by the Semiconductor Industry
Among the most noteworthy examples of academic programs funded by semiconductor manufacturers is a university program created and funded by Texas Instruments (TI), a global leader in semiconductor design & manufacturing. This initiative, dubbed the TI University Program, offers educators discounted tools, lab donations, and teaching materials that they can use to train students on TI technology both in classroom and laboratory settings.
As part of their University Program, TI also organizes TI Innovation Challenge Design Contests. These competitions allow students to gain cash prizes or other awards while also being exposed to potential employers in the semiconductor industry. In addition, TI has also funded research projects at different universities to fuel innovation and allow students to learn more about TI semiconductors.
Another semiconductor manufacturer that has decided to invest in EE higher education is Xilinx, a U.S.-based supplier of programmable logic devices. The Xilinx University Program (XUP) promotes the use of low-cost tools created by the company, namely the Xilinx FPGA and Zynq SoC development kits, for academic teaching and research purposes.
An overview of XUP's free programs. Image used courtesy of Xilinx
Just like TI, Xilinx also created training materials that can be downloaded for free by professors and faculty at universities worldwide. In addition, the company organized workshops designed to train university faculty on how to use the teaching materials and tools they developed in classroom environments.
A final example of a renowned semiconductor manufacturer that now also offers materials for higher education training is Silicon Labs. Currently, Silicon Labs provides two types of university courses, called 32-bit MCU courses and 8-bit MCU courses, and a complete set of teaching materials that can be downloaded by EE professors worldwide.
Outsourcing Research to Universities
While many companies specialized in the design and manufacturing of semiconductor devices have focused their efforts on developing university courses and materials, some have also partnered with electronics engineering faculties on ambitious research projects.
For instance, a few months ago, Intel announced a new partnership with the University of Florida, Texas A&M, and the University of Maryland on developing security countermeasure technologies that can improve the protection of data stored on Intel chips. This partnership is merely one example of a research project born from a collaboration between a semiconductor manufacturer and academic researchers.
Intel's hardened security software, which is currently used in their eASICs. Image used courtesy of Intel
As part of this partnership, Intel provided researchers at the three universities with integrated circuits (ICs) to run tests to evaluate their security. These tests would ultimately ascertain the validity of the security countermeasure technologies implemented on a line of ICs created by Intel and the U.S. Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).
The Semiconductor Research Corporation (SRC), a U.S.-based non-profit research consortium, also established an education alliance specifically designed to fund research carried out by undergraduate and graduate engineering students while also offering them the opportunity to collaborate with industry experts. Every year, the SRC supports approximately 1500 students through various research contracts, grants, fellowships, scholarships, and a program known as the Undergraduate Research Opportunities (URO) program.
Despite there being so many benefits from the different programs and investments of corporate companies for EE education, there can still be drawbacks that need to be considered.
The Pros and Cons of Industry-funded Programs
Teaching materials, equipment, and funding by semiconductor manufacturers can be highly valuable both for students and academic institutions. In addition to reducing research costs, by offering devices, software, resources, and other materials that would otherwise need to be purchased directly by universities or students, these initiatives allow students to learn more about specific semiconductor technologies and collaborate with potential future employers.
Hands-on experience with industry-level hardware can be highly beneficial for students. It can help them better understand topics discussed during lectures and familiarise themselves with specific types of semiconductors that they might design and develop after graduating from university.
Moreover, semiconductor manufacturers' university programs could help students become experts in the development of specific types of devices. While this could be advantageous, it could also be limiting, especially if students only learn about hardware produced by a single manufacturer. They might later encounter difficulties if they are asked to use equipment they are not yet familiar with.
In addition to benefitting academic institutions and students, these efforts to support electrical engineers in their higher education could have significant advantages for the semiconductor manufacturers themselves. Firstly, as the academic courses and training materials they offer are designed to teach new generations of engineers how to use the semiconductor devices and software tools they develop, they could ultimately make the students who participate more suitable for employment.
Moreover, after taking part in a course focusing on a specific semiconductor manufacturer or using the devices developed by this manufacturer in their research, students might develop a preference for and familiarity with them. This familiarity means that they might be more likely to purchase these devices when working on future projects and might feel more confident when applying for a job at companies they are already familiar with.
Overall, the investment of semiconductor manufacturers in university programs and academic research projects can be highly advantageous, both for investing manufacturers and for institutions or students collaborating with them. Nonetheless, it might be wise for EE educators who decide to use materials provided by semiconductor manufacturers to ensure that students are introduced to a broad range of devices, manufacturers, and software solutions so that they are not limited in their skills and career choices after graduation.
Have you ever been part of any of the programs mentioned above? What are your thoughts on university and corporate partnerships for education? Share your thoughts and experiences in the comments down below.