Carnegie Mellon University
April 29, 2021

Preparing the Chip Workforce of the Future

By Krista Burns

Krista Burns
  • College of Engineering
  • 412-268-5316
The field of electrical and computer engineering encompasses all aspects of software and hardware engineering. Over the past decade, many students have chosen to focus on software due to the lower barrier to entry and the phenomenal career opportunities in growing areas such as machine learning and artificial intelligence. The Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE) at Carnegie Mellon University is working to provide a path to hardware engineering for students if that is their true calling.

The challenge is daunting. While virtually no high school students and only a select few college undergraduates are qualified to design integrated circuits, software internships are plentiful and establish an early interest in the field. Teenagers are able to work in industry to add value to real software products, which solidifies their commitment to a software engineering career. In contrast, a student must first take several courses before having sufficient background to even participate in the design of a chip.

"The ECE has shown industry partners the trends that are occurring at all major universities regarding the decline in students who choose hardware design as their specialty — and specifically, the trends for students who specialize in integrated circuit design," said Larry Pileggi, department head of ECE.

To address these trends, CMU established an initiative whereby industry partners fund scholarships and fellowships for students who follow a hardware concentration path.

The maker movement is alive and well at Carnegie Mellon. The ECE department wanted students to experience the same level of gratification in creating an integrated circuit as writing a software program. To achieve this required actually making the chips.

"Industry partners are providing funding for the fabrication of CMU's Very Large-Scale Integrated (VLSI) Circuit course, and the design projects in the course support some of our Ph.D. student research," said Pileggi. "The idea is that the students in the class become trained in integrated circuit design, companies have more students to recruit for such jobs, and our Ph.D. research mission is advanced by the systems that are supported by these chips."

After one academic year of scholarships and a reinvigorated VLSI design course, the department saw an immediate spike in the number of students choosing the integrated circuit design and hardware concentration for their curriculum specialty.

"Our primary industry partner is so pleased with this initiative that they are expanding this offering to other universities," said Pileggi. "The department is further exploring the access to materials for this course to be shared with selected institutions — schools that would otherwise not offer such courses."

Carnegie Mellon University offers a broad and highly flexible ECE degree program that is structured to provide students with the smallest set of constraints within a rich and comprehensive view of the profession. While graduates are well-rounded and trained in both specialties, this new initiative showcases hardware engineering opportunities and will ultimately strengthen the domestic integrated circuit design workforce.

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