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STEM Education for Chip Sector

The interdisciplinary nature of the semiconductor industry requires not just one education pipeline but many: Graduates with advanced degrees across the sciences are essential, but so are people with the skills to operate equipment as new fabs go online. STEM Education for Chip Sector. Related science programs at the university level are well-established and provide the necessary education for research and development and design. But as the CHIPS Act funds more onshore manufacturing, other streams of training will be needed to equip people with the skills to operate those facilities.

Given the global nature of the semiconductor industry, virtual training and international partnerships between chip companies and schools are seen as essential to maximizing educational efforts. Regional training matters, too, with both advanced degrees and associate programs at community colleges seen as critical to producing people locally in communities where chip companies are clustered.

Virtual training captures students globally

Partnering in education to scale up the semiconductor industry’s workforce goes in both directions. Lam Research partners with universities and organizations around the world, including many here in the U.S., to cultivate talent in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

In an exclusive interview with EE Times, Nikki Salenger, Lam’s senior director of U.S. talent acquisition and mobility, said that current partnerships include the National GEM Consortium, the National Society of Black Engineers, the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers, the Society of Women Engineers and the United Negro College Fund. “These collaborations allow us to build a pipeline of highly skilled and diverse STEM talent.”

Lam is looking at new ways to help train the workforce, including virtual skills training—approximately 1 million more semiconductor workers will be needed globally, as the worldwide semiconductor industry is expected to reach $1 trillion annually in 2030, Salenger said. “Training semiconductor engineers is an especially daunting task, as few universities have access to the latest semiconductor equipment and advanced nanotechnologies.”

Lam believes that utilizing the virtual world can unlock new educational opportunities for workforce development, Salenger said. Its Semiverse Solutions simulate real-world labs, and the company recently signed a memorandum of understanding with the Centre for Nano Science and Engineering at the Indian Institute of Science (Bengaluru, India) to jointly develop a customized course offering for Indian universities to teach semiconductor fabrication technology using Lam’s Semiverse Solutions virtual fabrication software.

Virtual training can add value beyond university education, Salenger said. Despite the wide range of technical and non-technical training programs that engineers go through, it is often difficult to assess the impact of training. “Skill development in a lab is not only costly but there are so many variables in process engineering in a lab environment.”

Teaching and training engineers in a realistic virtual environment make it easier to understand where an engineer is on the learning curve without the time and expense of using precious resources in a laboratory, Salenger said.

Universities making room for more students

When it comes to physical seats in universities, the number of seats for engineers across many disciplines is growing at an exponential rate, according to Arijit Raychowdhury, chair for the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Georgia Tech. In an exclusive interview with EE Times, he said the school has a large footprint in mechanical engineering, chemical and biomolecular engineering, and materials science and engineering. “There are some pain points associated with that growth, but it also shows that there is a lot of demand for computing in general.”

Georgia Tech’s Arijit Raychowdhury.
Georgia Tech’s Arijit Raychowdhury

Georgia Tech’s College of Sciences encompasses physics and chemistry, where there is a lot of work going on connected to semiconductors and manufacturing, Raychowdhury said, as well as research, which is significantly interdisciplinary, especially in emerging areas like quantum computing. “There is some momentum and some critical mass there as well,” he said.

Having worked at Intel, Raychowdhury noted that a fab typically uses 90% of the periodic table. “It’s a massive operation and it requires expertise in all different areas.” Because the semiconductor industry taps so many knowledge domains, the foundational knowledge in pure sciences, engineering, mathematical sciences and computing are all essential to building out the workforce, but schools also need to teach hands-on curriculum, he said.

Community colleges complement advanced degree programs

Focused collaboration with major technology companies is critical to filling the gap between the skills learned in class and what’s needed in the industry, Raychowdhury said, which was the driving force behind Georgia Tech’s School of Electrical and Computer Engineering joining forces with Apple to create an undergraduate course in VLSI design that spans theory to tapeout. Students go through the full experience of prototyping a digital system-on-chip (SoC), which means they focus on the skills they need in the industry and get exposed to the kinds of career opportunities open to them.

It is imperative that undergraduate students have the right kinds of skills needed to work in a fab and that associate programs have a significant role to play, as do community colleges, Raychowdhury said.

STEM Education for Chip Sector
The inaugural cohort of Georgia Tech’s ECE 4804 VLSI Design: Theory to Tapeout. Pictured on the far right, from bottom to top: Fernando Mujica, Visvesh Sathe and Arijit Raychowdhury. (Source: Georgia Tech)

Local Participation

GlobalFoundries also sees the local community as a resource for nurturing its workforce. It has regional partnerships with 10 universities and seven community colleges in New York and Vermont to drive STEM degree enrollment and engagement and provide hands-on skills training to address industry workforce needs. Georgia Tech is one of its partners, as is Purdue University, which has a couple of key initiatives to help scale up the semiconductor industry’s workforce.

The appropriately named SCALE (Scalable Asymmetric Life Cycle Extension Engagement) program provides courses, mentoring, internship matching and targeted research projects for college students interested in five microelectronics specialty areas: radiation-hardening, heterogeneous integration/advanced packaging, SoCs, embedded system security/trusted artificial intelligence and supply chain awareness.

STEM Education for Chip Sector
Purdue student Anna Murray places printed-circuit–board samples into an oven to test for stability and other important qualities in electronic components. The latest funding round for the SCALE workforce development program helps students build these skills to use in microelectronics work. (Source: Purdue University/Charles Jischke)

Skills requirements require hands-on training

SCALE reflects the complexity of the industry, said Peter Bermel, professor of electrical and computer engineering at Purdue. “It is a very interdisciplinary complex industry, so multiple majors and disciplines are required to come together. Not all the students recognize that at first.”

Employers have told the university that they sometimes have more trouble recruiting people from outside of electrical and computer engineering, Bermel said. “We’ve actually spent a lot of time and effort just educating the students on some of the complexities, the supply chain and the range of disciplines needed.”

Another key initiative at Purdue is the eight-week Summer Training, Awareness, and Readiness for Semiconductors (STARS) program, which is designed to jump-start student training for careers in the semiconductor industry. A chip design track offers students a crash course in circuit design and programming languages, while the STARS manufacturing track develops skills related to chip fabrication and material and device characterization. STEM Education for Chip Sector.

Purdue University’s Peter Bermel.
Purdue University’s Peter Bermel


STARS is a regional program aimed at getting students into the semiconductor industry locally, Bermel said, while the overall challenge is to create a portfolio of talent aligned with what is needed in different regions. “If you’re really focused on manufacturing, you’re going to need more technicians and operators who often have two-year degrees,” he said.

Broadly speaking, the goal of the CHIPS Act was to revitalize the whole supply chain, Bermel said, which spans many areas, including foundries, design firms, materials and advanced packaging. “Each of those sub-areas has its own emphasis on talent.”

It is important to be mindful of the distribution of needs when developing education and training, Bermel said. “You don’t necessarily want to train lots of operators and technicians in New York if they’re all needed in Idaho.” People may not want to uproot themselves from where they go to school to where the opportunities are, he added. “You have to think about the regional ecosystem when you’re designing these kinds of programs for the national need.”

Purdue has been proactive with its semiconductor-related training. Vijay Raghunathan, professor in the Elmore Family School of Electrical and Computer Engineering, said the university knew the CHIPS Act was in the works. “We knew that the workforce was going to be a big part of it.”

Purdue announced its intention to put together a comprehensive talent development program in semiconductors in September 2021, Raghunathan said. “We had to get started immediately if we wanted to get the timing right and start getting people out the door.”

Semiconductor education must get creative

Rather than create new degrees, Purdue’s philosophy is to take its semiconductor and chips content and infuse it right into its existing curriculum to highlight the pathways, Raghunathan said. “We feel that’s pretty much the only way you can get to the scale of moving the needle.”

NextFlex’s Rebecca Lewis.
NextFlex’s Rebecca Lewis

Rebecca Lewis, director of workforce development at NextFlex, also believes the industry needs to get more creative with training, noting that there is a huge continuum of education, including internships and short-term training.

 “We’re moving as a country a little bit away from this idea that a degree equals my worth in terms of my knowledge and skills and capacity to contribute.”

Along with vocational technical high schools, community colleges could help train technicians and complement longer-degree and post-doctorate education, Lewis said. “Our current educational systems don’t always align or accurately reflect individual capability or knowledge.”



Source: STEM Education for Chip Sector

STEM Education Scales to Strengthen Chip Sector Skills

Semiconductor curriculum trains students in various university and college programs for an industry that values a broad range of skills.

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