Carnegie Mellon University

Illustration of a computer chip

May 06, 2021

Preparing the Chip Workforce of the Future

By Krista Burns

Krista Burns

The field of electrical and computer engineering is broad and encompasses all aspects of software and hardware engineering. Due to this breadth, students often find that they must choose between a career in software or hardware engineering. Over the past decade, it has become apparent that many students are choosing to focus on software due to the lower barrier to entry and the phenomenal career opportunities in areas of growth such as Machine Learning and Artificial Intelligence. As a university, it is our job to provide opportunities for students to find a path to hardware engineering if that is their true calling.

But the challenge is daunting. While virtually no high school students or only a select few college undergrads are qualified to design integrated circuits, software internships are plentiful for undergraduates and high school seniors which establishes an early interest in the field for them. 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, before learning to design an integrated circuit, a student must first take several courses before she will have sufficient background to even participate in the design of a chip.

“The Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE) at Carnegie Mellon University 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,” said Larry Pileggi, department head of electrical and computer engineering. “And specifically, the trends for students who specialize in integrated circuit design.”

To address this trend, and to encourage students to focus on the hardware track, Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) established an initiative with industry partners whereby they fund scholarships and fellowships for students who follow the path of a hardware concentration. Companies recognize that providing a financial incentive toward hardware design is needed to give students the opportunity to consider that option. Additionally, the industry partners share tangible demonstrations of what such careers look like, and what exciting opportunities await them.

Students crave the satisfaction of making something, which is part of the allure of writing a software program. And the maker movement is alive and well at Carnegie Mellon in general, but the ECE department wanted to establish the same level of gratification with creating an integrated circuit. To achieve this requires 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, most 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 with a rich and comprehensive view of the profession. While graduates are well-rounded and trained in both specialties, this new initiative showcases the hardware engineering opportunities and will ultimately strengthen domestic IC design workforce.