Making waves in technology education

Updated: Feb 22 2014, 01:56am hrs
The days of being responsible for a single engineering or scientific domain are ending. The days of designing complete, integrated systems are upon us. Look at the consumer products making an impact on everyday life. Todays automobiles include more than 70 embedded controllers to tune an engines performance on the fly. Some of these automobiles can place and receive phone calls, provide navigation, and drive and park on their own. Basic cellphones are a thing of the pastsmartphones are in everyones pocket, have millions of applications, and wirelessly connect to a growing array of devices.

Using smartphone apps, you can even control home security and lighting while away on vacation. These examples are only the tip of the iceberg.

So what can you learn from todays innovations to help shape science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education and prepare the engineers oftomorrowto solve grand challenges

First, consider the components of todays technology innovations to understand what is driving them:

Processing Power Is AbundantWith modern technology like multicore processors and FPGAs, systems can process signals and perform arithmetic in nanoseconds. And history has proven that processors become cheaper and faster every year, allowing for their use in more products than ever before.

Sensors Are SmarterTaking a physical phenomenon and converting it to an electrical signal has opened doors for millions of applications. Sensors make it possible for electronic systems to hear, see, touch, and act, resulting in automation for countless decisions.

The Software Is the InstrumentHardware is not merely the physical device anymore. Software drives the functionality of hardware and can transform it into any device you can imagine. The smartphone is a technological feat, considering all the power packed into the palm-sized device, but we all know that the apps are what make it truly revolutionary.

The World Is Connected WirelesslyAccess to the Internet is now ubiquitous in most developed regions and has the power to connect people and devices regardless of their location. The cumbersome wires that have long been the bane of electrical engineers have recently disappeared due to advancements in wireless communication protocols and lower power requirements.

Though all of these components are revolutionary on their own, bringing them together has sparked even greater innovation. Combining the elements of communication, computation, and control into a single system has resulted in the rise of cyber-physical systems. These cyber-physical systems feature many of todays innovations and require new skills from graduating engineers who are being asked to begin innovating as soon as they enter the workforce.

EVOLUTION THROUGH INNOVATION

Throughout history, changing educational curricula has required the forward-thinking insight of a person, or a small group of people, to identify a need in our society. These pioneers then researched and tested their hypotheses to validate them. If their theories held true, their techniques and strategies were shared with others who replicated them on a greater scale. But these theories and concepts werent shared in a chat room or on a message board.

Faculty members in colleges and universities integrated these innovations into their classrooms. These innovations in industry and research inspired the skills required for students to graduate and enter the workforce as the engineers and scientists society needed to build bridges that did not collapse and airplanes that could travel across the Atlantic Ocean on a single tank of fuel.

An example of this can be found in the genesis of electrical engineering as a dedicated field of study, separated from the study of physics, in the 19th century. But this was not just a singular occurrence. In recent decades the trend has repeated itself as biomedical engineering became an official field of study to fill the industry demand of needing engineers with cross-disciplinary knowledge of electrical and mechanical engineering with an understanding of anatomy and medical practices. Other fields such as green engineering, environmental engineering, and power electronics have grown in popularity over the past decade as the world has shifted away from fossil fuel dependency and looked for other ways to harvest and distribute power.

As current students progress through their educations and prepare for industry, cross-disciplinary and design courses have become increasingly important. Ohms law and the laws of thermodynamics are not going to disappear, but learning to work in teams and assemble larger, more complex systems comprised of cyber and physical elements is proving to be of greater importance. Students must be able to meet the exciting challenges of applying theory and doing engineering to produce results within a single semester, much like they will need to do in industry upon graduation

NEW LESSONS PRODUCE NEW RESULTS

The tools students use in their studies must enable their education in the fundamentals of engineering and science, so they can combine these fundamentals into more complex systems and be relevant to industry to avoid any redundant or wasted knowledge. Some colleges and universities around the world have already begun adapting their curricula to prepare their students to be the cyber-physical system designers that industry now demands. Mechanical engineering students at the University of Leeds in the United Kingdom start with basic control algorithms and then finish with fully autonomous vehicles. The University of California, San Diego has begun a masters program that incorporates hands-on model-based design of wireless, embedded, and cyber-physical systems. And students at Olin College recently designed a fully autonomous sailboat using the latest commercial technology with plans to sail across the Atlantic Ocean.

Though focusing curricula on system design requires adjustments to classroom tools and educational goals, professors have found that many incoming students handle these adjustments because they began practicing system design concepts at an early age. In-school robotics clubs and programs like FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) and the WRO (World Robot Olympiad) expose students to the fundamentals of system design in primary school and secondary school.

These young engineers construct robots, acquire data from sensors, automate decisions, and control actuators. This is encouraging because these students are preparing to be the well-rounded, multidisciplined, cyber-physical system designers oftomorrow. Given the proper tools, projects, and guidance, they will continue to build these skills as they progress through their educations.

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- By Abhay Samant (Marketing Manager - India, Russia, Arabia) National instruments.

(The opinions expressed here is author's own)