Virginia Tech is satisfying the craving for semiconductor advancement
Sometimes the burritos show up before the chips.
In the case of Virginia Tech’s major in chips-scale integration, 50 homemade breakfast burritos helped draw faculty to a Cinco de Mayo-themed meeting in 2016. Anchoring the agenda: a vote on a new curriculum for the Bradley Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering. The potential revamping, which included the new semiconductor-focused major and 13 others, would be the department’s first major curriculum shift since 1989, nearly three decades earlier.
That pivotal meeting took place six years before semiconductors, or chips as they are commonly called, and the critical hardware components’ manufacturing became a national focus. So universal buy-in for the new curriculum was far from a given.
“At one point during the meeting, Fred Lee stood up, and it goes totally quiet,” said Luke Lester, head of the department and co-creator of the new curriculum. “I remember thinking this is either going to be really good or really bad.”
"I remember thinking this is either going to be really good or really bad."
- Department head Luke Lester
A University Distinguished Professor Emeritus, Lee endorsed the new curriculum and capped the roughly two-month sprint of Lester and his colleagues to reimagine it in ways that better reflected real-world needs and more effectively communicated possibilities in the field to future students.
“I went ‘Hallelujah’ in my head,” Lester said.
The successful vote that day helped propel the chips-scale integration major into existence, and the effort was boosted by receiving a National Science Foundation Revolutionizing Engineering Departments grant just a few months later.
Since its inception, the chips-scale integration major has recorded a sevenfold increase in the number of students declaring and graduating with a specialization in chips and is among the factors that have positioned Virginia Tech to play a key role in the United States’ effort to onshore semiconductors today.
“Back then, we surely weren’t predicting the CHIPS and Science Act, but working with our advisory board and faculty, we were forecasting that this was needed and began encouraging more and more students toward the major,” Lester said. “We’re excited to be in this position now because our faculty and students not only get to be part of this national priority to become more globally competitive in the semiconductor space, they’re going to change the world and make other people’s lives better.”
Signed into federal law in August 2022, the term “CHIPS” in the CHIPS and Science Act stands for Creating Helpful Incentives to Produce Semiconductors, while “chips” also serves as a common term for semiconductors.
It’s true what they say about chips, you can’t just have one. In fact, about 1,500 of these critical hardware components are needed to successfully outfit a single automobile.
It’s also true that there isn’t just one Virginia Tech effort helping to find viable solutions to meet the growing demand for research, development, and manufacturing of chips in the United States. The land-grant university is leading in multiple ways, not only in classrooms and labs, but across the state, country, and even around the globe.
Faculty are advancing cutting-edge research ranging from examining semiconductors’ potential to help reduce greenhouse gas emissions to exploring the role of artificial intelligence in semiconductor configurations and efficiency. To help cultivate work-ready graduates, the researchers include students throughout the process.
This spring, Virginia Tech was named the anchor institution for the Virginia Alliance for Semiconductor Technology (VAST) and Virginia Tech’s Masoud Agah its founding director. Bringing together numerous higher education institutions, government entities, and industry partners, the initiative will create a statewide network to advance research, capitalize on economic opportunities, and cultivate a robust and diverse workforce.
This effort is bolstered by the university’s designation both as a founding member of the 21-institution, Micron-formed Northeast University Semiconductor Network and the 11-university network Upwards for the Future, which was designed to cultivate a more diverse and robust talent pipeline for the semiconductor workforce that spans the U.S. and Japan, this year.
And in July, just weeks shy of the CHIPS Act’s one-year anniversary, Virginia Tech hosted more than 100 leaders from higher education, industry, and government to discuss the collaboration needed to onshore semiconductor manufacturing during the CHIPS for Virginia Summit. Held in conjunction with Northrup Grumman Corp. at its headquarters in Falls Church, Virginia, the summit showcased the university’s unique capability to serve as a conduit to support Virginia’s efforts to become a leader in semiconductors.
“None of us can do it alone and, for me, this has been the foundation for orchestrating the formation of the Virginia Alliance for Semiconductor Technology, or VAST,” Agah, the Virginia Microelectronics Consortium Professor of Engineering at Virginia Tech, said during the summit. “If there is a group of leaders positioned to help shape the future of semiconductor technology in Virginia, it is the esteemed group of stakeholders gathered here today."