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Director’s Reflections: Clif Pollock

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

This summer, I went backpacking with a group of 16-year-old boy scouts. We went rim to rim across the Grand Canyon and then over 100 miles in northern New Mexico. It was intense, because it’s no secret that I am not 16 anymore. But what struck me most about the hike was the different expectations: I went for the journey, the boys went for the destination.  

Even as we hiked through spectacular scenery, the boys’ goal seemed to be to get to the next campsite as quickly as possible. I mostly recall breathing hard as I was looking at the boots on the trail in front of me, trying to keep up with these young men.   

I often visit other schools to review their programs, and what I usually see, metaphorically speaking, is the same rush to the destination. Their graduates seem thoroughly trained in the latest design tools and can probably be productive at their first job within 30 minutes. But a few years later when technology changes, these poor people are doomed to management!
Cornell students are different. Our graduates may not be as conversant with the latest versions of a CAD suite, but they do understand the timeless fundamentals of the tools and can quickly learn and adapt as technology advances. We take our students on the journey. They end up at the destination, but the richness of our trip is what sticks with them.

In the alumna article on Page 2, Sarah Fischell B.S. ’78, M.Eng ’79, concisely summarizes the experience: “Cornell totally prepared me to ask the right questions, to absorb new technical knowledge and to work with a group to define problems and find solutions to those problems. These skills were key to success in my engineering career.” Those are the skills each of you learned, that came from the long and often arduous journey of discovery through tough homework, ambitious design projects, endless labs and the constant sense of gasping for air as each professor pushed your class to particular new heights.  

A good curriculum makes graduate students look forward 20 years, and ensures undergraduates see nothing older than 20 years. Of course, things like Maxwell’s equations are 160 years old and are still taught, but we put them in context of today’s applications such as terahertz radiation sources, fiber optic waveguides or high-k dielectrics. This requires constant discussion and updating of the curriculum. When I arrived here, every student was required to take quantum mechanics. At that time solid state electronics was changing the world as we knew it, devices like lasers were being employed in lots of new situations and nanotechnology was a new emerging field. Today, quantum mechanics still serves students who want to master solid-state electronics or quantum electronics, but it is no longer required of all.

As a field matures, the level of abstraction increases. This moves detail behind an interface, and allows wider use with less specific knowledge. For example, instead of using assembly language to program the microcontroller like we did in 1980, today almost any high school student can download an “IDE” (integrated development environment) to program a microcontroller and within minutes have LEDs blinking to all sorts of input. Does the high school student understand the device as well as we did? Not even close! But abstraction has increased the overall productivity surrounding the tool.  

We constantly discuss where the field is going, adjusting our research and our curriculum. The last 50 years have been a spectacular success for our field. The integrated circuit is the enabling tool of high tech, making everything from smart phones to autonomous devices possible. Our cellular networks, which use everything from lasers and fiber optics to information theory, now support the Internet, e-commerce and social networks that are changing the way people interact. The world is entering unexplored territory on the social science domain. How should we prepare the next generation of ECE students to participate and lead in this new domain?

This brings me back to the journey. Cornell students have always mastered the ability to ask and be asked tough questions, tackle tough issues in a logical way and debug problems. I am not worried about their destination. They will go out and influence the world in ways we have never predicted.

I’d enjoy hearing your thoughts on where you think the future of ECE will be, and what you think we should be teaching students today. Please send me an email at crp10@cornell.edu if you’d like to suggest some new legs to this journey.

-Clif Pollock

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