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Peggy Aycinena
Peggy Aycinena
Peggy Aycinena is a freelance journalist and Editor of EDA Confidential at www.aycinena.com. She can be reached at peggy at aycinena dot com.

Dr. Belle Wei: 2012 Marie R. Pistilli Achievement Award

 
May 24th, 2012 by Peggy Aycinena

At the center of the technical universe sits Silicon Valley. At the center of Silicon Valley sits the City of San Jose. At the center of the city sits San Jose State University, and at the center of the university sits the Charles W. Davidson College of Engineering.

Currently, SJSU offers 12 undergraduate majors in engineering, 11 graduate majors, and a host of different inter-disciplinary programs at all levels. It’s a dynamic College of Engineering and a powerful magnet for study in Northern California.

Dr. Belle Wei (M.S.E. Harvard, Ph.D. U.C. Berkeley) has been Dean of the College of Engineering since 2002, and is now serving a second 6-year term. On Monday, June 4th, at the Design Automation Conference in San Francisco, Dean Wei will receive the 2012 Marie R. Pistilli Achievement Award.

Per the press announcement of her Marie R. Pistilli award: “Dr. Wei is the first person in the College of  Engineering’s history to hold an endowed deanship. During her tenure as dean, Dr. Wei has increased extramural grants and endowment gifts, strengthened industry partnerships, and tripled corporate master’s degree programs from five to 14.”

Dr. Wei – first interviewed here on EDACafe in 2006 – has a long, distinguished career at SJSU. Her contributions to engineering education, in particular, the promotion of under-served populations who seek careers in technology, are extremely significant.

It was an honor to speak with Dean Wei this week about engineering education, innovation, and everything in between. We spoke on May 22, 2012.

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WWJD: Congratulations, Dean Wei, on your Marie R. Pistilli Award. It is very well deserved!

Dean Wei: Thank you very much!

WWJD: Let’s start with an update on the College’s annual overseas program where outstanding SJSU students have a chance to travel to Asia, to experience the technology sector there first hand.

Dean Wei: Yes. Our students this year will be heading to Taiwan, and then on to several stops in China including Shanghai, Beijing, and Wuxi. This is a return to China for this program, because over the last several years the students have traveled to India.

In addition, since we spoke in 2006, the requirements to participate in the program have increased. Students must now take a 3-unit course in Chinese culture and history prior to the trip, as well as a workshop to help develop intercultural competency skills.

We realized that sending these students to places where they may not know the culture or language left them under-prepared to fully decode the cultural practices and norms in the destination counties. Now they travel with specific skills which help them [to further benefit] from their experience. The effects have been really amazing.

WWJD: I know you have accompanied the group in the past. Are you also going this year?

Dean Wei: Unfortunately, my schedule often prevents me from going – the trip is over two weeks long – and that is the case again this year. I did have a chance to go with the students to India in recent years, which was an excellent experience.

WWJD: How many students are going in 2012?

Dean Wei: There will be 17 engineering students, and 6 additional students from other disciplines including business, as well as several faculty and staff members to supervise. The expenses are covered by sponsorships from Silicon Valley companies.

WWJD: Have you been able to track the impact of the experience on alumni students?

Dean Wei: Yes, several alums were invited back to speak to current students. One mentioned that because of his trip, he [subsequently] embraced the opportunity to work in China. Another student, a project manager at Cisco, cited additional confidence when interfacing with other cultures and countries in the workplace, and said the experience made leading and working with a global team far easier.

WWJD: Speaking of the global economy, how do the stats look these days with respect to engineering enrollment in the U.S. – in particular, electrical engineering and women enrolled in EE?

Dean Wei: We see the percentage of undergraduate enrollment in Electrical Engineering to be dropping. Particularly for young women, there is an unequal distribution [across disciplines].

For instance, in Chemical Engineering, 32% of the students are women, but in Electrical Engineering and Computer Engineering, only 11% of the students are women. This tells us that early exposure to these different disciplines is very important and has an impact. We have much a higher percentage of Chemical Engineering students, because of their exposure to chemistry in high school.

As a result, we continue to do more focused outreach to younger students, bringing information about our programs to Middle School and High School students to expose them to all types of engineering studies and careers.

We believe outreach is the key, particularly when we look at the data. There is not so much of a retention issue [once the students are enrolled] – that is on par with the male students – but we constantly monitor the percentage of women engineering students coming to us from the community colleges. And our women faculty members are very active in providing outreach to young women.

WWJD: It’s really not possible for a student, male or female, to jump into engineering after entering college without a strong academic background starting in Middle School and High School. So, how do we solve the problem of outreach to young children earlier on in their education?

Dean Wei: A strong pre-engineering curriculum in Middle School and High School is the most important pathway to success in engineering. Here at the College of Engineering, we are actively recruiting students in 38 Middle Schools and High Schools in San Francisco and on the Peninsula. That represents well over 3000 students.

WWJD: But there still remains the larger issue of getting more students to study Electrical Engineering.

Dean Wei: Yes, and part of that situation is a national problem because the students sense that more IT-related jobs are moving overseas, so if they study engineering they want to study Mechanical Engineering [which seems to have more job prospects in the U.S.]. Here in Silicon Valley, however, that presents a very interesting situation because the jobs here are in the IT field. Clearly there’s a strong mis-match here.

Nonetheless, students continue to be interested in ME because cars, airplanes, and mechanical systems in general are very intuitive and visceral. Electronics on the other hand, are so well packaged today. Yes, the students use their iPads and iPhones, but that usage doesn’t necessarily translate into an intuitive understanding [of what’s going on inside of the device].

WWJD: So it’s a matter of form factor?

Dean Wei: I would prefer to say it’s a matter of ‘ability to manipulate.’ In earlier days, young people got interested in electronics from working on ham radios, and so forth. But now, the integration level is so high in electronic devices there’s really no opportunity for tinkering.

WWJD: However, cars are loaded with electronics today, so they are even hard to tinker with now.

Dean Wei: Actually, young people today who work in engineering need to work across disciplines. They need to know how to work in teams across ME and EE, and other disciplines, in order to build cars and systems for tomorrow. The innovation is not just from the electronics, but from the integration of the overall system.

WWJD: We talked about this in 2006, but again – what do we do about the perception of the quality of education at schools like San Jose State University versus the perception of the quality of education at the Ivy League schools?

Dean Wei: This question continues to be tied to young people’s aspirations and their attitudes.

We know that the Ivy League schools position themselves and have a tradition of training leaders for American society – political leaders, business leaders, public servants – which is important for a lot of young people who want careers in these areas. Many students, however, want to define a meaningful life in their own way.

At San Jose, we provide a hands-on education, and an opportunity for success, often for middle class families. We provide a real bridge between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots.’

It’s something we don’t talk about much, but for students going to the Ivy League schools – and yes, I’m generalizing here – they have lots of educational opportunities, Princeton, Yale, and so on. For our students, however, for financial reasons and a number of other different reasons, we provide a path that they can craft and chart.

And another thing. How many students are we actually looking at who can enroll in the Ivy League schools? I once heard a faculty member at U.C. Berkeley say that the number of grads from Cal far exceeds the total of all Ivy League graduates over time.

San Jose State University is a college for the people. It is a public university, not an Ivy League school. This is especially important if we want to preserve and build a democracy, to be able to offer social mobility for all of the people in our society.

WWJD: Do you think the core curriculum, for instance in engineering, is the same no matter where you go to college, but it’s how hard the students work once they are there that is the true distinguishing factor between universities?

Dean Wei: Yes, and I would add that it is also an attitude towards life.

It’s not uncommon for young people who grow up in privileged environments to develop a sense of entitlement. However, when we had the dot.com bust here in Silicon Valley, it was hard for all types of grads to find jobs – even kids from ‘good’ families and ‘good’ schools. For many of those young people, when they failed to find work, they just locked themselves up.

But when I asked my students how they survived those difficult times, they said, “No problem. I’m working in the pizza shop until something better opens up.” It reflected an attitude towards life, an attitude towards work, and a level of resilience that was really impressive.

WWJD: How many students are enrolled currently in the College of Engineering at San Jose State University?

Dean Wei: We have about 4700 students.

WWJD: That’s got to be one of the largest enrollments in the U.S.!

Dean Wei: Actually, it’s a reduction from our high of 5200 students, but budget cuts meant we have had to turn away some students.

WWJD: And how would you describe your visibility within Silicon Valley?

Dean Wei: We have an extremely strong and active engagement with the Silicon Valley community. For instance, several weeks ago we had our annual Engineering Banquet with over 530 people in attendance and 25 sponsoring companies. Our visibility is very robust!

WWJD: Within the global landscape of the technology sector we’ve been watching the migration of jobs, and possibly innovation, to other hemispheres for over a decade now. What do we do about it?

Dean Wei: Yes, the problem is ongoing, but the Silicon Valley landscape also reflects some of the changes.

Looking across the entire IT landscape, there is so much going on in electronics on both the software and hardware side, there is so much demand that there are many work opportunities here. Social media companies, companies that have emerged as global leaders in all areas of technology, all solving a [host of problems] in the consumer electronic space.

WWJD: Do your comments reflect an optimism for Silicon Valley and North America?

Dean Wei: Yes, very much so! People here are constantly innovating, looking at the various problems in aggregate. Things are constantly shifting and changing. There are big challenges ahead, but it’s very exciting at the same time.

WWJD: Given the success of people like Mark Zuckerburg, Steve Jobs, and Bills Gates – people who didn’t come anywhere close to finishing college – what do you say to young people to: a) assure them that they’re not a failure if they’re not a billionaire by the time they’re 28, and b) convince them that they must stay in school and grind through their engineering courses, the very toughest of majors anywhere.

Dean Wei: First off, in our general conversation as a society we need to emphasize that money is not a measure of success. Having meaningful work for our students, and for society, is the goal.

Second, we all need to understand that some people are indeed geniuses, people like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs. But if you are not a genius, you are better off not dropping out of school.

WWJD: Speaking of innovation, how do engineering students maintain a sense of creativity when they’re weighed down under all of those problem sets?

Dean Wei: You need to innovate within a box of solutions. If you don’t have that box, there’s nothing to innovate – especially if you are dealing with physical phenomenon. You can’t violate the rules of physics in your innovations.

Before you can break the rules, you need to know the rules. Even artists need to learn the rules so they can break them. First you have to become a master; you have to develop a proficiency before you can innovate.

WWJD: What would you say is the most difficult part of your job?

Dean Wei: Even now, the most difficult part is managing the use of my time. We know we need to connect with people, but making the time to get together with colleagues is so difficult. We stress too much over these things all the time.

WWJD: And the best part of your job?

Dean Wei: Absolutely it is the chance to see the students here flourish. And working with my faculty and staff, and having the opportunity to see how well people perform. It is all so energizing.

WWJD: If you could start again, would you choose to study something other than Electrical Engineering?

Dean Wei: First, you have probably read the statistics: Most of the CEOs in Silicon Valley are EEs. My background gives me the ability to understand the technology behind their companies, to understand the expertise of the players, to know them and talk with them. We speak a common language.

And even if I were going to work as an engineer, I would still want to have studied Electrical Engineering, or maybe Computer Science.

WWJD: If you had gone to work in industry, what do you think you would have done?

Dean Wei: On this, I don’t want to speculate. Industry is an economic entity, it’s about profit growth and making money. When I reflect on the time when I first chose to enter academia, part was because I love learning and part was because I love people. Deciding to teach meant I was following my bliss.

WWJD: With your tremendous responsibilities, how do you relax?

Dean Wei: I love to travel. I also like to take walks and do yoga, and really enjoy good conversations with family and friends. I also love to read, particularly literature that is tied to my foreign travel. In [recent travels] to Turkey and Vietnam, I read literature that made those places come alive.

WWJD: What would you do if you took a sabbatical today?

Dean Wei: I would like to teach technology and history together, the history of technology. How the development of technology has impacted history. It seems at times to have come out of left field, and is just amazing.

I’m also very interested in the broader societal context. We know, for instance, that IT impacts how we live and work, but looking at it within the broader historical context – understanding how we acquire knowledge through discovery and development by scientists, and then how engineering puts the emphasis on the practical application of that knowledge. I am very interested in how we bridge scientific concepts to produce products and services to improve people’s lives.

WWJD: At the risk of going from the profound to the everyday, what is your favorite tourist destination in San Francisco given that DAC will be there in June?

Dean Wei: It’s always my mom’s home! She is a wonderful cook and I love to be with her.

WWJD: I suspect she is very proud of you.

Dean Wei: I believe she understands I am working to humanize engineering, that technology should be used to advance humanity. I see it as all of our jobs to be sure that those advancements remains the goal.

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Editor’s Note …

Per U.S. News & World Report in 2011: San Jose State University’s Charles W. Davidson College of Engineering received top marks, ranking seventh in the nation among public engineering programs offering bachelor’s and master’s degrees, excluding service academies.

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