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How to Create Future Engineers - One Laser Trip Wire at a Time

Students who get to experiment with real-world engineering tools might just want to make a career of it.

By Clint Cole


There's a disturbing trend in American education. Kids don't want to be engineers. Among graduating high school students, interest in engineering as a career has waned. Enrollment in college electrical and computer engineering programs is declining. Most alarming, for the last decade, the number of engineering graduates has steadily decreased.

This year, if we're lucky, the U.S. will graduate 20,000 engineering and computer science majors. However, according to some sources, a projected 800,000 jobs are available. We're not producing enough engineers to grow the economy. We can't even replace all the engineers who are retiring.

If the demand for engineers is greater than ever, why the short supply? In some ways, the field is harder to enter today because there are so many more technologies and systems for an engineering student to learn. But it's also more fun to be a young engineer today because there are many more modules and computer-assisted design tools to help.

Today, young engineers can assemble very complex and compelling systems virtually alone. They can put together some very dramatic and cool products, almost by themselves, on their "bench top" at home. Of course, it takes time to learn the desktop tools and technologies developed over the last few years. But if a young person likes to create and build things, it's a great time to want to be an engineer.

So what can be done to spur more interest among students? We need to equip high schools, even the junior high schools, with low-cost, well-designed products and services that introduce basic concepts of digital and analog design. We need to introduce the technologies, the conventional tools, and the design methods in a way that's compelling and fun.

It's up to educators to create a vision for where they'd like a program to go. But even kids twelve or fourteen years old can write actual code and make things happen. If a kid wants to build, say, a laser trip wire to detect Dad coming in the house, take a photo to identify him, and turn on the coffeepot for him automatically - there's a lot of analog circuits in there. To learn how to control those kinds of circuits, that's where our Analog Discovery product comes in. The kit, which includes all Analog Devices Inc., components, circuit board and virtual oscilloscope among other tools, lets you build basic analog circuits and learn how the voltages and currents are constrained in that circuit to solve meaningful problems, such as amplifying an audio signal or making a motor spin. Such practical, component-level analog problems provide wonderful ways to teach engineering fundamentals. This kit is being used in universities with great results.

As they enter high school or at least college, students need to be able to carry out their own creative, hands-on designs, at home on their desktops. It's a mission that's near and dear to me. When I left the corporate world in 1997, I started teaching entry-level digital design classes. Unfortunately, the simplicity of the circuit boards then in use severely limited what my undergraduate students could design. In my more advanced classes, it was even worse. Those students could only design circuits on paper and had no way to try out them out. So I took a common programmable computer chip from industry and designed a circuit board that could be used to program anything, even complex microprocessors.

Practicing with real circuit boards, my engineering students picked up experience and confidence and left college better prepared for the workplace. I started Digilent to make the boards and market them to schools. Teaming up with industry leader Analog Devices we produce a hardware kit that educators and students can use to carry out their own designs. We also produce projects and guided examples to jump-start the process of learning engineering methods, tools, and technologies.

So this is what it's all about: Students start with raw materials and a basic notion of engineering. Once they have some notion of the creative process and problem-solving methods, they develop a disciplined way of thinking. They try something, interact with it, gather data, and feed that back into the design process. They start with little steps, gain knowledge, and take bigger steps.

This isn't a snap-together-robot-kit approach. We're talking industrial-strength, state-of-the-art microprocessors and tools. When they learn those methods and tools, they can keep going as far as they want. It's the real thing. The best way to produce future engineers is to build excitement early on. Before they get to college math and physics, students learn intuitively through hands-on design.

Imagine if more kids grew up tinkering with basic circuits and making things happen. Maybe there wouldn't be a labor shortage in engineering.

Clint Cole is an electrical engineering professor at Washington State University and president of Digilient, Inc., in Pullman, Wa., which provides technology-based educational design tools to more than 2,000 universities in 70 countries. A former paramedic, Cole went on to work at engineering companies developing portable defibrillators before entering academia and founding Digilent in 2000. .