The robotics industry must vie with all other industries for qualified engineering talent. Unfortunately, the overall US pool of engineering talent is dropping right at a time when scores of existing engineers are preparing to retire.
By John P. Desmond
While no central clearinghouse of robotics workforce development information exists, discussions with academics and economic development organizations present a picture that reflects the current trends in the generalized engineering workforce.
That picture shows that 15% of the current science and engineering workforce is eligible to retire now, and an additional 25% will be eligible within five years. Between 1998 and 2008, 1.9 million new jobs in science and engineering will have been created. But in that 10 years, only 198,000 engineering and science college graduates per year will have entered the workforce.
A Major Shortfall
“That is a two million person shortfall,” notes George Blanks, director of K-12 engineering outreach for the Samuel Ginn College of Engineering at Auburn University in Alabama. (Data is also from the American Electronics Association report, “Losing the Competitive Advantage: The Challenge for Science and Technology in the United States.”)
The number of undergraduate degrees in engineering in the U.S. has fallen in the last 20 years from 71,000 in 1981 to less than 56,000 in 2002. Current trends indicate serious workforce shortages in science and engineering lie ahead, a threat to U.S. prosperity and national security, according to a National Science Board report of August 2003. Other indicators of the problem include reduced student interest in science and engineering (S&E) studies and a projected growth in S&E occupations that is three times that of other occupations.
Unlike the U.S., emerging countries are producing more than their share of engineers. For example, China is graduating four times as many engineers as in the U.S. and the European Union graduates three times as many. In 2004, only 7% of the 868,000 undergraduate engineering degrees granted worldwide were earned in the U.S., putting the U.S. in 17th place.
Robotics and Computer Science
Steps are being taken at the college level to attract more students into engineering fields. Similar efforts are being made to reach the K-12 population, often in collaboration with private industry. For both groups, an emphasis on robotics is as a way to interest more students in engineering. Robotics requires the study of math and physics, and often exposures students to the engineering design process itself.
Villanova University has worked to include robotics into the computer science curriculum in an effort to attract more students. “Of all the engineering disciplines, it is computer science majors that get the most education in software engineering”, says Frank Klassner, associated professor and executive director of the Center of Excellent in Enterprise Technology at Villanova. “The robotics industry is looking to the day when sets of robots will be required to work together. We will need a workforce with the necessary software engineering skills to pull that off.”
Klassner continues, “But when it comes to robotics, sensors and actuators, it is a messy world from a computer science perspective. Students need some experience with robot platforms before they can apply their engineering skills. So the real challenge is getting some exposure for computer science students to robots,” he says.
Villanova began adding robotics into the curriculum in 1999. Their approach was to revamp several courses to include robotics. In the operating system and computer optimization courses, students were given access to embedded programming problems, important in setting up and debugging robots, using the Lego Mindstorm platform. In the artificial intelligence area, students worked on building robots that interacted with their environment through sensors. “They have a background in probability and statistics courses, working with noisy data and detecting signals in such data,” Klassner says.
Out of 20 students in a typical Villanova computer science graduating class, one or two may pursue graduate work in robotics. “The robotics industry is going to have to fight for the computer science majors,” says Klassner.
Klassner gives the industry a mixed report card when it comes to helping students gain the necessary background to enter robotics. The outreach has been concentrated more on the Ph.D.-granting institutions, which graduate about half the computer science graduates each year. “The robotics industry needs to provide resources in the form of test beds and hardware at a discount for research and education purposes. And they need to be aware that although the faculty might be interested, they need workshops and educational material,” he says.
Programs that try to engage high school students in robotics, such as FIRST, help to create a pool of more qualified students for engineering schools to target. Still, “It is a little uneven as to what their actual skill set or background is,” Klassner says. If the student actually worked on the design of the robot system, the college has something to build on. If the student participated more on a support basis, such as by updating a website, that student might not be as ready for computer science or engineering.
The industry could help the academics by providing compelling robot demos to attract students. “The dog and pony show works. Which one you use is a question. Faculty members really need to have something to run right out of the box to show students,” Klassner notes.
At Harvey Mudd College in Claremont, CA, the approach is to use robots and robotics applications in the introductory computer science course as a final project, with students often using iRobot Create from iRobot. “We always have a full complement of students working on robot projects each summer,” says Zachary Dodds of Harvey Mudd. Some of those students have presented their robotics at the Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence’s annual meeting, and sometimes they compete in external contests. “There are always more students that would like to get involved than there are supervisors and advisors to coordinate them,” he says.
Dodds has a contrarian view of whether the robotics industry is facing a workforce shortage. “If robotics explodes, for example through a ‘killer app’ in elder care or interpersonal communications, perhaps there will be concern about supplying enough roboticists. At the moment, I do not see the robotics industry suffering from a lack of talented engineers or computational scientists,” he says.
Dodds continues, “I would be surprised if the robotics industry is interested in robotics-specific graduates over talented, broadly-trained and broad-thinking engineers. Robotics is fundamentally integrative,” he says.
Self-Learning Some Help
Some of the skepticism about a looming robotics and engineering workforce shortage is the result of advances in self-learning technology. For example, when shipbuilder Northrop Grumman asked Native American Technologies Co. (NA Tech) to build an advanced robot for straightening metal, the company asked NA Tech where the robot operator workforce would come from. “We have been amazingly successful in rapidly bringing new operators up a learning curve using self-learning technology,” says Jerry Jones, CTO of NA Tech. In one example, a new operator worked with a new robot for 10 hours, and did work that would take 20 hours using the manual process the robot was automating.
“We took the most advanced self-learning technology out there and put it right into the robot,” says Jones. “By using advanced learning technology, we can train the workforce to use the equipment quickly reducing much of the problem. We will just train the people doing the manual labor today in the same industry. Hopefully, they will find it very natural to use these robots in this human-robot partnership approach.”
Increasing Technical LILeracy
Meanwhile in the southern states of Texas, Alabama and Georgia, the BEST program is dedicated to getting more K-12 students interested in a science education, through the study of robotics. BEST is the second largest competition of its kind behind FIRST, and is free unlike the $6,000 entrance fee charge by FIRST. Both FIRST and BEST rely heavily on engineers from industry to work side by side with student teams, to “demystify” engineering.
This approach is concentrated on helping students to achieve “technological literacy,” a term gaining traction as the way to describe what 21st century workers need to fully participate. The International Technology Education Association (ITEA) proposes this definition:
Technological literacy is far more than the ability to use technological tools. Technologically literate citizens employ systems-oriented thinking as they interact with the technological world, cognizant of how such interaction affects individuals, our society, and the environment. Technological literacy is the ability to use, manage, assess, and understand technology. It involves knowledge, abilities, and the application of both knowledge and abilities to real-world situations. Citizens of all ages benefit from technological literacy, whether it is obtained through formal or informal educational environments.” (Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Technological_literacy)
According to George Blanks of Auburn University, while attending a Governor’s Conference on Math and Science Education a few years ago, Bill Gates of Microsoft was a keynote speaker. Gates told the audience that the American high school is broken and should be thrown out. He said the U.S. education system does not work, and China, European Union and India have surpassed the U.S. in preparing students for future industry jobs.
“The reason we started doing robotics competitions was to get kids interested and excited about engineering, science and applied math. Industry is interested in preparedness, in a future work source. Our education system has failed in many respects. In Alabama, we’re doing something about it now,” Blanks says.
The Best program (http://www.bestinc.org), which started in 1993, had two schools involved the first year and fourteen in the second. This past Fall, some 600 schools and 11,000 students participated. “It started to give kids something to do in engineering that was fun, and turned into schools and companies interested in the program because it was getting kids interested in engineering and science as it applied to work. And it is a perfect marriage of K-12 students to engineering schools and industry.”
Engineering colleges are seeing 50% or higher attrition rates among first-year students. Students are often not prepared for the math and science requirements, and have little understanding of what engineers do. “Robotics is a practical application of physics and math. There is calculus and some algebra involved. It’s a hand-on engineering experience and they learn engineering design process, which every college student learns,” Dr. Blanks says. “Our philosophy is, if you can teach kids in middle school and high school, and combine that with a good foundation in algebra one and two, calculus and physics, they are more likely to be prepared to go to an engineering school.”
“The only critical issue is the degree by which the US trails the rest of the world. I do not know if it is possible to catch up,” says Dr. Blanks.
The optimistic view is the public-private partnership represented by efforts such as BEST and FIRST, will help produce more students interested in studying engineering, which in turn will help produce a workforce for the growing robotics industry.
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John P. Desmond is a Contributing Editor to Robotics Trends. He can be reached at .