Critical Mass at U-M

The main campus of the University of Michigan is mighty impressive, as it would have to be to accommodate upwards of 38,000 students pursuing over 200 different academic majors. It's a great campus, complete with imposing clock tower, large central quad surrounded by layers of traditional Mid-Western College architecture, a cathedral-like law library with what has to be the most beautiful reading room in the nation, and a massive medical school complex, all integrated into that most quintessential of college towns, Ann Arbor. Michigan also has a dynamic new university president, a student and faculty population diverse in ethnicities, nationalities, and attitudes, and a vibrant sense of intellectual freedom and curiosity.

But to the jaundiced eye of the visitor seeking out the EECS Department, the main campus pales in comparison to the North Campus, a short two-mile shuttle ride away. The North Campus, looking less like a Mid-Western College and more like a New Age Industrial Park, spreads discretely across gently rolling hills and is home to the School of Music, the Gerald Ford Presidential Library, the School of Architecture and Urban Planning, Art and Design, and the Engineering School complex - which includes a clock tower of its own that's more rocket ship than time piece, a host of stylishly designed buildings to house the 11 distinct engineering departments within the school, and the creatively conceived Media Union [library] that services all schools on the site.

The North Campus is a complete world unto itself, so removed from the hodge-podge of the Main Campus/Ann Arbor confluence that it almost seems monastic in its remoteness. One gets the impression that you can live there, eat there, study there, do research there, and live out your days in peace amidst like-minded thinkers.

Or so it seemed to me when I visited the campus 3 weeks ago on a bitterly frigid day when the temperature outside never went about 34 degrees and sleet and freezing rain added to a visitor's woes. Inside the various buildings of the Engineering Complex, however, all was well and good. Particularly in the EECS building, which has its own indoor avenue, park benches, streetlights, and trees.

It was upstairs in the EECS building where I was able to talk with Professor Dennis Sylvester and to learn that he has gone full circle from a BSEE at Michigan, to a Ph.D. in EE at U.C. Berkeley, to a year in R&D at Synopsys, and back to Michigan again, where he is now Assistant Professor in EECS with an emphasis on VLSI design.

He's really enthused about the upward trajectory of the EECS Department at Michigan, and it's clear that the rest of faculty is right there with him. Sylvester told me that between Interim EECS Department Chair Richard Brown, founder of the DAC Student Design Contest, and EECS Associate Professor David Blaauw, DAC 2003 Panel Chair, there's high profile leadership in the department for VLSI design and associated research.

Sylvester said the program is further strengthened by close ties with industry. “We really like our VLSI program, but we want to be sure that everyone is on the same footing. In general, when companies hire graduates fresh out of school, they assume the graduates don't know anything and must be retrained. This is particularly true in the case of custom IC design. Here at Michigan, we work to get feedback from cutting-edge design houses to help ensure that our students receive training that will be relevant to their careers immediately upon graduation.”

“Additionally, we interact with companies like Intel and IBM to give our grad students a chance to do a large chunk of their dissertation work at an industry site - as long as the companies are amenable to having the work published, of course. It doesn't benefit a graduate student to be working on a proprietary project. Intel and IBM have been very good about donating money and equipment to our program, things that are really important to us.”

Sylvester said that Brown, Blaauw, and the entire faculty are pushing to make the department strong across all aspects of design - digital design, mixed-signal design, RF design, and EDA tools and methodologies. “With our close ties to industry, our move to hire additional faculty in analog and mixed-signal design, as well efforts to hire instructors with expertise in EDA tools, we're working to provide the curriculum in VLSI design that people really want. And we're going to be making an impact on the industry. We're definitely developing a lot of critical mass here in our program. Critical mass is hard to attain - schools like Illinois, Berkeley, UCLA, CMU have it - but we're well on our way to having it as well. If I had to go somewhere to study VLSI design, I'd consider Michigan right alongside those other schools.”

Michigan is a school that encourages their students to publish, Sylvester said. “At the graduate level, a Ph.D. here requires 4 semesters of course work and, of course, research and a thesis. I encourage my students to stretch those courses out over 2 to 3 years, so that they can start in on their research as soon as possible - and therefore publish something as soon as possible. It can be discouraging to be just starting your research after 2 years in our Ph.D. program, while you see others around you who have already published.”

“Meanwhile, the DAC Student Design Contest comes out of Richard Brown's Student Design Contest here at Michigan. It's been a great way to generate interest in design for our students. We always impress on our students that there's a lot of activity around DAC and you just have to be there. This year our department will have 13 papers being presented at DAC, almost all by students.”

Michigan keeps an eye on student presentation skills, as well, according to Sylvester. “While we encourage our grad students, and our undergrads, to publish their research as soon as possible, we also work with them to develop the presentation skills they need to present their work at technical conferences. And of course, we encourage them to attend as many conferences as possible over the course of the year.”

Sylvester acknowledged the perception among Michigan students that they're at a geographic disadvantage. “The downside of travel for our students is that sometimes they feel isolated here in Michigan. Our grad students might go to a conference in San Jose or Monterey or L.A., and get the somewhat artificial sense that those places are where it's all happening in technology. But they're getting a warped view at those conferences, because they don't see that when the conference is over, everybody goes back to somewhere else.”

Meanwhile, at both the graduate and undergraduate level, students at Michigan have access to hands-on experience working in the fabrication facility on the first floor of the EECS building. “Our students have a chance to test out their designs by fabricating their chips. Our CMOS capability downstairs is at a micron, but we've got access to 0.18 micron if we outsource to MOSIS, or 0.13 micron through our partnering with IBM and Intel.”

Sylvester added, “We also use 'predictive' 65-nanometer models from the Berkeley Predictive Technology Modeling (BPTM) project. I started on this project at the tail end of my studies at Berkeley, and I'm happy to see a lot of universities around the country using these models. Usually universities can't get access to really advanced models, pre-production - and that was the point of the BPTM project, to allow for advanced circuit design to be undertaken at engineering schools.” As a last note, he said that the first floor fab at Michigan also provides extensive research facilities for students interested in GaAs, opto-electronics, and MEMS.

Sylvester said the department keeps a close eye on the post-graduation success of their students and he maintained that, despite reduced hiring across the industry, there are lots of openings for engineers with the specific VLSI skills being taught at Michigan. “Intel has said, 'We have 100 openings in logic development. Give us the people we need.' Clearly, it's not really true that people aren't hiring.”

Additionally, Michigan encourages students to consider careers in academia, according to Sylvester. “We don't have to do a lot of work bringing kids back into academia to teach after they've studied here. Of course, I wouldn't want all of my students to go into academia, or all of them to go into industry. We try to give them a really good experience no matter where they're headed. Certain personality types are just better suited to research and the idea of teaching, while others are better suited to industry.”

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