Sunday, April 21, 2019

Teaming up to get workers ready for technology of the future

  • >>Ellen Rosen, The New York Times
    Published: 2018-12-16 09:17:34 BdST

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Shawn Reese is the perfect example of the complicated route that can lie ahead for workers of the future — but also for the opportunities that are emerging.

He graduated from Quinsigamond Community College in Worcester, Massachusetts, in May with a degree in electronics engineering technology, a field — like so many — that is rapidly evolving. A degree today is unlikely to be enough preparation for the challenges of tomorrow. So what is a student, a university, an industry, to do?

One approach is the one taken by AIM Photonics — its AIM Photonics Academy — and a group of community colleges and universities that have banded together over the past five years to develop emerging technologies and train the workforces needed to sustain them.

The partnership is one of 14 across the country focusing on emerging technologies and industries addressing an increasingly important and vexing question: how to prepare workers at all levels — technicians as well as people with doctoral degrees — for new technologies, like integrated photonics, that are in development, but only at the very early stages of commercial use.

“Because the jobs don’t exist yet, we need to train students in the skills that are relevant today so they can get a job, but at the same time, very selectively, begin to supplement the training relevant to new industries,” said Sajan Saini, education director of the AIM Photonics Academy, which is based at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

In his view, the way to accomplish this is by creating “a staggered educational curriculum so that the learning never stops.”

And that brings us to photonics: It’s the science of using particles of light, or photons, as an energy source (as opposed to electrons) and derives from work by Albert Einstein and others that began more than a century ago. It figures in a wide range of modern devices, from CT scans to bar codes, to laser-guided missiles, cellphone networks and more. Light-based technologies are energy efficient, reliable and fast.

Integrated photonics is still a developing technology that enables components to work seamlessly together. It is expected to be incorporated in telecommunications and computing, to name just two applications, and could, by 2025, comprise a market exceeding $5 billion, said Lionel Kimerling, the AIM Photonics Academy executive.

AIM Photonics is a public-private consortium with headquarters in Albany, New York, that is devoted to the development of integrated photonics. The academy is the educational arm and involves partnerships with a range of academic institutions including MIT, Rochester Institute of Technology, SUNY Polytechnic Institute, University of Arizona, University of Rochester and University of California, Santa Barbara.

Reese was among the first group of interns to attend MIT this summer at its Lincoln Laboratory, a federally funded research and development centre managed by the university for the Defense Department. The laboratory works on integrated photonics along with a host of other technologies.

“I had mixed emotions at first,” said Reese, who is studying for an engineering degree at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell. “I was very excited, but also cautious because it was MIT.”

Reese worked in Lincoln’s Microelectronics Laboratory as a member of the equipment engineering and maintenance team. That team “enables the fabrication of both electronic and photonic integrated circuits,” said Paul Juodawlkis, an assistant group leader at the laboratory who helped place the interns.

Community colleges across the country, with the help of companies and research institutions like MIT, are beginning to shape their curriculums to expose students to new theories and technology while teaching long-standing core manufacturing fundamentals, encouraging their students to continue their education even after they have earned their initial degree.

There’s more of a challenge, however, for existing workers, who also need early exposure to up-and-coming technology to remain current. While smaller companies often cannot spare their workforce for training in future technologies, larger ones are often more willing.

Lockheed Martin, for example, has sent engineers to the AIM Photonics Academy to work with others in industry, academia and government “because we see value in preparing the pipeline,” said Nick Rhenwrick, a research engineer who works in the company’s corporate engineering, technology and operations organisation.

He is responsible for the training associated with AIM Photonics Academy as well as at two other electronics-related institutes, NextFlex, which focuses on flexible hybrid electronics and Power America, which focuses on wide-bandgap semiconductors.

The AIM Photonics Academy highlights the differences between training and education.

A technician, for example, who may have a degree from a community college, also needs training in the basics of manufacturing: showing up on time, learning procedures and how the tools operate, and, increasingly, data analytics to understand when equipment may be functioning outside of acceptable parameters, said Kimerling, who is also a professor at MIT.

Even robots can sometimes “drift out of control, which a technician needs to be able to recognise as soon as possible,” he said, adding, that it’s a skill that comes with more advanced technical training.

AIM Photonics, along with the 13 other advanced manufacturing centres, known as the Manufacturing USA Institutes, were created as public-private-academic partnerships under the Obama administration to both cultivate nascent technologies and develop training curriculum in classrooms, labs and businesses to support those new technologies.

“We are trying to work together to develop the ideal curriculum” for new technologies, said Mike Molnar, founding director of the Office of Advanced Manufacturing at the National Institute of Standards and Technology, which acts as a liaison between industry and academia for the institutes. The educational efforts are multidisciplinary and include online classes in addition to in-person training.

Among the online choices are edX courses that focus on graduate level audiences, as well as education modules for self-paced learning. The training spans technical abilities and softer skills like public speaking, teamwork and collaboration.

“Collaboration is remarkable and intellectually challenging,” Kimerling said. “You not only learn about the physics but learning from those who are doing the work.”

c.2018 New York Times News Service

 

Caption: Shawn Reese, an engineering student with a summer internship at MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory, in Cambridge, Mass, Sept 7, 2018. REUTERS