An engineering professor discusses how to expand student horizons through campus-wide software accessibility.

INTERVIEW | by Victor Rivero

The world needs more scientists and engineers. According to Code.org, the U.S. graduated about 50,000 computer science students last year, and there are about 550,000 computing jobs open nationwide. What’s more, employers are beginning to lose faith in the ability of higher education – 53 percent of employers surveyed identified data management and data analysis as the top skills gap area, according to a CompTIA survey.

Academics and software companies are banding together to close this skills gap. One promising approach is to increase university-level access to commonly used software tools through campus-wide licenses. Broad availability of industry-used tools like MathWorks’ MATLAB and Simulink are helping to balance the graduate-to-workforce ratio by making it easier for students to take advantage of the educational benefits of project-based learning.

In this Q&A, Jonathan Sprinkle, Litton Industries John M. Leonis Distinguished Associate Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering, University of Arizona, shares a firsthand account of his experience working with a campus-wide license, and explores the greater impact that accessibility to industry software tools can have on readying students for successful engineering careers.

Does the trend toward campus-wide software licensing indicate a change in relationship between industry and universities? Is closer collaboration leading to more qualified job candidates?

Jonathan Sprinkle: Having campus-wide access to industry-standard software tools is great for students, particularly ones coming from an otherwise disadvantaged background or a background without a mentor. Often, students cannot determine on their own which software to buy – or, worse, they are forced to choose between buying software A or software B. If they’ve already bought software B for a previous class, then this deters them from taking a class that requires software A. This eventually creates a negative societal impact – we’re ruling out what classes a person can take based on the funding they have available.

I’ve also found that many universities are using competing toolboxes that have been part of their licensing programs for five or ten years, and so they often need to make a case at the local level as to why a certain toolbox should be included. A campus-wide access license such as the one with MathWorks eliminates this concern.

How does campus-wide access to software help you better teach your student engineers?

Jonathan: The best example I can think of comes from the CAT Vehicle Challenge, a student competition we ran recently focused on Model-Based Design for a self-driving car. Students were given data from the CAT Vehicle driving along a path. The task was to use that data to identify potential obstacles on and off the path, and identify those obstacles using as few sensors as possible. We started with several equations for how the robotic car should operate, and the students had to incorporate these equations into their designs.

What ended up happening was that most of the teams spent 10, 15, or 20 hours working through the equations, because they all had different levels of knowledge and experience with different software tools. Whereas, when I walked into the class I said, “Congratulations on finishing your assignment. Now I’m going to do it for you in MATLAB and Simulink, and we’re going to finish it in less than 40 minutes.”

This is a specific example that demonstrates the benefit of using tools that are available to the entire student body through a campus-wide license. You can tell the students that if it works on their machine, it’ll probably work on my machine, regardless of whether you’re running on Linux, Windows, or Mac.

Have you found a link between campus-wide software licenses and student success?

Jonathan: Again, I go back to the CAT Vehicle Challenge. There were several teams that were convinced they had developed the best action plan for obstacle detection, when in fact a much easier solution was to pass the data they had collected through a low-pass filter that was available in Simulink. They spent hours debugging a complicated algorithm that in fact should have taken about 20 minutes.

Many of the toolboxes that are available have built-in components that allow you to navigate complex algorithms. If you don’t have those tools, then you must create the algorithm yourself and that can cause a huge loss of time. Another advantage of campus-wide access to these tools is that the license allows students to automatically generate code. They should not and do not need to feel like they must write code by hand to make it run. That’s the difference between the success that winning teams have found in our competition, and those that have not. 

In your opinion, how does campus-wide access to software improve outcomes for project-based learning? And how does that better prepare students for careers in the engineering field?

Jonathan: What we need to understand is that there is a more useful way for us to be training the leaders of tomorrow. Our goal should be to ensure that students are thinking about problems that need to be solved, and then coming up with technical ways to solve those problems.

As it stands now, so many students are focused on simply pleasing the professor, when we need them to be focused on developing unique solutions that can make a difference instead. Through campus-wide licenses and project-based learning, students are better able to think about the desired outcome of a project and come up with technical solutions in the meantime that will help them get there. Project-based learning enables students to be better equipped for their first day on the job, rather than having to spend six or nine months learning that problems in the real world don’t have 10 pages’ worth of prescriptions associated with them.

Can you share any real-world examples where you’ve seen campus-wide licenses make a positive impact on students’ success with project-based learning?

Jonathan: Absolutely. Say you have an Electrical Engineering student who wants to take a senior-level course in Computer Vision, but the Computer Vision course is available only in Computer Science. A campus-wide license for software that is used in the course ensures the student doesn’t have to be a member of the Computer Science department to take the class.

What you’re enabling is a form of interdisciplinary learning that wouldn’t be possible if the licenses were purchased on a lab or departmental level. Campus-wide licenses also enable us to share examples from research we’ve developed to improve future projects, and we can distribute data sets we’ve gathered in a way that is useful for universities and institutions.

At the end of the day, campus-wide licenses help students feel more accomplished by facilitating project-based learning and making them much more effective at explaining themselves and their work. The campus-wide license pays dividends on their future by giving them access to tools that are going to make them more productive and help them think at a higher level.

Victor Rivero is the Editor-in-Chief of EdTech Digest. Write to: victor@edtechdigest.com