Engineering education evolves to train tomorrow’s IoT innovators

Hardware and software engineers are the lifeblood of tomorrow’s connected world. Academia is looking at ways to ensure a steady supply

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Former U.S. Secretary of Education Richard Riley’s comments on the role of education in a rapidly changing world remain as true today as they did over two decades ago. “We are currently preparing students for jobs that don’t yet exist, using technologies that haven’t been invented, in order to solve problems we don’t even know are problems yet.” That puts pressure on governments, industries, companies and STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, the Arts and Mathematics) educators alike to come up with answers to tough questions. Questions such as: What does the engineering work of tomorrow look like? And how can education programs prepare young people and graduates for a future that’s not entirely predictable, yet will likely revolve around technologies focused on big data, AI, machine learning (ML), edge computing and, of course, the IoT?

Society will need coders capable of leveraging advanced technologies to their full potential if innovation is to be relied upon to solve global challenges. To tackle climate change, aging populations, endemic diseases and sustainability we must build a pipeline for skilled engineering practitioners and make sure it flows continuously.

A 2020 study by the World Economic Forum (WEF) suggested the jobs of tomorrow will be based on seven key professional clusters that promise growth and prosperity in the future workforce. The study predicted data and AI, engineering and Cloud computing—disciplines that generally demand strong expertise in digital technologies—will be amongst the fastest growing professional clusters, with product development not far behind. For each of these clusters, skills described as ‘tech disruptive’ were found to be the most important, with ‘tech baseline’ skills also ranking highly.

The WEF study estimates the emerging employment areas are set to deliver 6.1 million new jobs within the next three years. And in the U.S., employment projections from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show 3.6 million computing-related job openings are expected by 2029. There appears little doubt the roles and responsibilities will exist, but will there be enough qualified people to perform them?

Breaking through the roadblocks

Industry insiders suggest that to meet future demand, the quality of engineering education must keep pace with technology. Moreover, by working to improve engineering education, institutions like schools and universities will better prepare students to fill looming digital and IoT skills shortages. Progress is good but challenges remain. One recent report, Engineering Futures 2035: Engineering Education Programs, Priorities and Pedagogies, by the Australian Council of Engineering Deans (ACED), listed the need for a greater focus on student engagement with contemporary engineering practice and its socio-technical contexts among seven key findings and 22 recommendations for the future of engineering education. Based on a 2019 national survey of undergraduates, the report states engineering students are less satisfied than students of all fields in engagement with skills development, teaching quality, student support, learning resources and overall quality of the learning experience.

Further, some education and technology stakeholders claim a lack of diversity in skills and ideas could stifle technological innovation as well as future career prospects. According to Bernadette Foley, General Manager Professional Standards at Engineers Australia: “What we need is diversity of programs, diversity of graduates and diversity of engineers, so that everyone can use their strengths differently and be successful in a range of career opportunities.”

It’s not only the nature and scope of the education itself to be considered; the demographics of learners matter too. In 1990, women represented 35 percent of the U.S. computer science workforce, but by 2017 this figure had fallen below 30 percent, while women accounted for just 16 percent

of engineers, according to the country’s National Science Board. When it comes to technology fields broadly, women are significantly outnumbered in both school programs and the workforce. They receive only 21 percent of computer science bachelor’s degrees and hold only 25 percent of computing roles, says the U.S.’s National Center for Women & Information Technology (NCWIT).

In an attempt to close the gender gap and other imbalances in the technology sector, not-for-profit organizations like NCWIT, Girls Who Code, and AnitaB.org are providing wireless tech driven STEAM education resources to more women and girls, as well as underprivileged communities. The COVID-19 pandemic hasn’t made this sizeable task any easier, but educators have adapted. At NCWIT, for example, Arduino kits—comprising development hardware for hands on tinkering as well as online lessons for electronics, programming and coding basics—have been used to continue teaching young students in the center’s ‘Code for Change’ program.

Industry commitment

IoT wireless technology providers have a vested interest in the education of tomorrow’s engineers. As the world’s leading Bluetooth LE chipmaker, Nordic Semiconductor is committed to the objective of providing digital education opportunities for the coders of the future. This commitment is demonstrated not least by Nordic’s partnership with the Micro: bit Educational Foundation – the not-for-profit organization behind the BBC micro: bit, a Nordic-powered, pocket sized computer and user-friendly educational resource for teaching students about coding and how software and hardware work in tandem. The micro:bit could be helping around 100 million young people learn about technology by 2025.

Companies are using the tiny computer as the basis for educational solutions that encourage an interest in coding. One example is Strawbees, a firm which provides a complete STEAM building and coding education solution to help teachers deliver curriculum-aligned, class-ready lessons. The STEAM Classroom Kit with Micro: bit combines physical building, robotics and electronics kits with web-based development tools.

Nordic also recently joined global ICT leader, Nokia, and fellow fabless semiconductor company, MediaTek, in establishing a new professorship in SoC technologies for wireless systems at the University of Oulu, Finland. In sponsoring this professorship, Nordic further demonstrated its support for academia, education and research across engineering fields, particularly in relation to the advantages of low-power wireless IoT connectivity. According to Svein-Egil Nielsen, CTO of Nordic, this type of cooperation with a leading research institution represents a great opportunity to contribute toward research and innovation for future wireless technology. “We believe the professorship will further enhance the interest in wireless education at Oulu University,” explains Nielsen.

With industry stakeholders working together for better digital education, a healthy cohort of future coders will be ready to drive innovation.