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SPIE Professional October 2008

Filling the Gap

Academia and industry work together to train future engineers.

By Beth Kelley

More than a few photonics organizations are concerned about the gap between the skills they find in the job applicant pool and what the business world really needs. Instead of just talking about science and engineering education and workforce needs, research institutions, universities and businesses are teaming up to offer students opportunities to practice their skills in real-world settings and inspire tomorrow's engineers.

Universities such as Brown and Arizona State are offering "applied" degrees in engineering that build partnerships with companies and integrate product development courses into their programs. City University of New York has developed an intensive hands-on program for its graduate and undergraduate students at its Center for Optical Sensing and Imaging, funded by NASA.

Schools are also bringing in more industry speakers and lecturers. In November 2007, the École Polytechnique de Montréal hosted The Optics & Photonics Entrepreneurial Workshop. Organized by the college's SPIE/OSA Student Chapter, the event brought together a variety of speakers from the business world discussing everything from job etiquette to how to file patents.

Working World

Businesses and research institutions are taking the initiative to bridge the training gap by reaching out to universities to create partnerships that will help shape the next generation of engineers.

Sandia National Labs (NM) launched its National Institute for Nano-Engineering (NINE) program in August 2007. The NINE program is a collaboration between government, universities, and nanotechnology companies. Graduate and undergraduate students are invited to work at Sandia either over the summer or throughout the school year for hands-on technical experience solving real problems in a business environment.

The summer program also offers courses on entrepreneurship, intellectual property, financing and the sociology of science. The projects fall into three categories: nanomaterials manufacturing, nanoelectronics, and energy. Sandia has already signed up seven industry and 12 university partners. NINE aims to become the first Discovery Science and Engineering Innovation Institute, as outlined in the America Competes Act, created in 2007.

The NINE program is also helping to provide outreach to teachers, such as a week-long camp that gives teachers information and experiments they can take back to their schools.

Duane Dimos, director of materials science and engineering of Sandia National Labs, feels nanotechnology lends itself well to this type of collaborative learning. "Nanotechnology is so inherently interdisciplinary; what you're doing in a subject like this is bringing together biology and all the engineering disciplines-physics, chemistry-so you have to think about some different educational models in something like nano," Dimos says. "Being able to have multiple universities, industries, and the lab work together on these models and making DOE facilities more available to students and researchers is really exciting."

Lockheed Martin, as another example, has teamed with the non-profit organization Project Lead the Way to form the Engineers in the Classroom Initiative. Lockheed Martin engineers visit classrooms and work with high school students on extracurricular engineering projects. They serve as role models and mentors for activities-, project- and problem-based learning challenges and as a way of engaging the students to consider engineering as a career. Lockheed Martin also offers a competitive scholarship for graduating high school seniors involved in the program.

Wide Field of View

The Utsunomiya University Center for Optical Research & Education (CORE) in Japan is a year-old training and research school funded by Canon Inc. that helps develop a strong workforce and new products. In addition to providing financial assistance to CORE, Canon assists with educational activities, such as sending its employees to serve as lecturers at the center.

One of CORE's primary goals is to develop highly skilled optical engineers who can advance the key technologies that underpin telecommunications and visual equipment, two of Japan's major industries. This is accomplished by CORE serving as a central institution for optics education and by promoting basic, applied, and advance research.

Education and business partnerships are also becoming more common in Europe. Dimos recently led a tour of several institutes in Europe that have the same goals as NINE. He was impressed with what he saw. "The institutes are getting students involved in … research partnerships, industrial innovation activities, as well as some new teaching models," says Dimos.

Dimos cites IMEC (Interuniversity Microelectronics Centre) in Leuven, Belgium, as an example. It offers opportunities for researchers and PhD students to collaborate on work in one space, to take courses, and find jobs. Acting as a bridge between knowledge centers and industry, IMEC promotes an open innovation framework.

In northern Wales (UK), there is OpTIC Technium, a government-funded optoelectronics business incubator. One of several OpTIC facilities scattered about the UK, the incubation center offers support for growing and developing businesses including clinics, mentoring, ease of access to government agencies, business development, meeting facilities, and clerical assistance.

"OpTIC is situated in a cluster of approximately 30 optoelectronics and photonics companies," says Brenda Hargreaves, Business Centre manager at OpTIC Technium. "With the addition of our incubation companies (approximately 32) this totals over 60 people-hungry companies that are always looking to recruit appropriately skilled, qualified people in all areas of the business." (See page 28 for more information about OpTIC and its Photonics Academy.)

Optonet in Germany is another cluster network which represents the interests of 90 companies, research and educational organizations, investment companies, and public institutions in the field of optical technology. Optonet is based in Thuringia, a major optics area in Germany, and is funded by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) and THÜRINGEN innovativ.

Optics Technicians Needed

In the United States, OP-TEC, the National Center for Optics and Photonics Education, is helping to meet the need for skilled photonics technicians through programs offered by its consortium of two-year colleges, high schools, universities, national laboratories, industry partners and professional societies.

OP-TEC offers curricula, manuals, guides and other resources for infusing optics into science, math, and technology courses and has developed two programs to increase America's supply of technicians in optics and photonics, Career Pathways and Tech Prep. Career Pathways is a sequence of rigorous academic and career/technical courses that begins in the ninth grade and leads to college degrees and industry-recognized certificates and licenses.

OP-TEC is also offering a free, two-day workshop on Optics and Photonics Education at Camden County College (NJ) 13-14 November. The workshop will inform career counselors, science and math teachers at various levels, and others about OP-TEC resources and about career opportunities in optics for their students.

OP-TEC receives funding from the National Science Foundation's Advanced Technological Education program and is headquartered in Waco, TX, at CORD, a non-profit organization providing innovative changes in education.

SPIE supports the efforts of OP-TEC and other organizations that are introducing optics to young people through education and outreach programs, whether through direct training of future engineers at top-notch universities or through programs aimed at assisting teachers in secondary and post-secondary institutions.

For more information and links to resources that are helping to "fill the gap" and foster collaboration between academia and industry, log on to spie.org/spieprofessional.

Education Initiatives

"Engineering for a Changing World" draws from several reports on increasing United States competitiveness and recommends including the academic disciplines of engineering and technology into the liberal arts canon undergirding a 21st-century undergraduate education. This broad liberal arts baccalaureate education should be a prerequisite for professional education at the graduate level, the report states.

Business incubator OpTIC Technium in Wales is host to the Photonics Academy for primary and secondary school students. (See article).

Minding The Gap

Statistics show the widening schism between what is taught and what is needed:

Engineering firms indicate young job seekers lack "soft skills" - critical thinking, problem solving, etiquette, prioritization, and time management.1,2

One-quarter of Colorado's graduating seniors and one-third of students graduating from Boston high schools need remedial math education.3,4

From 2007-2008 there was a 20% drop in students completing bachelors' degrees in professional IT fields.5

Women account for fewer than 20% of the recipients of engineering degrees earned at every level.6

Only 12% of the U.S. degrees awarded in engineering go to African Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans, although they make up 30% of the overall undergraduate student population in the United States.6

As of 2007, 60% of U.S. aerospace workers were 45 or older.7


1. Into the Eye of the Storm: Assessing the Evidence on Science and Engineering Education, Quality, and Workforce Demand, B. Lindsay Lowell of Georgetown University and Hal Salzman, The Urban Institute, (2007). http://www.urban.org/UploadedPDF/411562_Salzman_Science.pdf

2. Rising Above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future, Committee on Science, Engineering, and Public Policy (COSEPUP), National Academies Press, (2005). http://www.nap.edu/catalog.php?record_id=11463

3. Learning about Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics: Assessing the State of STEM Education in Colorado, University of Colorado Denver, (2008). www.cepa.cudenver.edu

4. http://graphics.boston.com/bonzai-fba/Original_PDF/2008/04/15/1208288528_3339.pdf

5. CRA Taulbe Survey, Computing Research Association, http://www.cra.org/statistics/

6. Confronting the "New" American Dilemma: Underrepresented Minorities in Engineering: A Data-Based Look at Diversity, NACME, (2008). http://www.nacme.org/pdf/Dilemma_Executive_Summary.pdf

7. Data compiled by the Aerospace Industries Association. http://www.aia-aerospace.org/aianews/newsletters/2008/may08news.cfm   

To find out more, read the article "Industry Pipeline" in the October 2008 issue of SPIE Professional.

Beth Kelley is an editor for SPIE Press. 

Have a question or comment about this article? Write to us at SPIEprofessional@spie.org.

DOI: 10.1117/2.4200810.08

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