Reengineering the Future

Georgia’s engineering schools are remaking education for jobs needed today – and tomorrow.

Georgia is a long-recognized leader in having key assets that industries need. Among those assets are universities that are working to transform their engineering programs to accommodate ever-evolving computing and software technology.

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Cutting Edge Program: Yusun Chang, chair of the Department of Robotics and Mechatronics Engineering at KSU: photo Kevin Garrett

Throughout the University System of Georgia, more than 24,400 students are enrolled in engineering certificate, associate and degree programs, including software engineering and related computer programs. Software skills have become so integral to engineering that a trend in Georgia’s university system is blending colleges of computer science, where software is traditionally taught, with engineering colleges.

The curricula fusion is on full display on the four Georgia campuses with the largest engineering-computing enrollment: Georgia Tech, Southern Polytechnic College of Engineering and Engineering Technology at Kennesaw State University (KSU), the University of Georgia (UGA) and Georgia Southern University. Peach State companies have a strong need for engineering graduates coming from these institutions.

“Software engineers, computer scientists and data scientists are in high demand across technology, fintech, digital health and other sectors,” says Kristi Brigman, deputy commissioner of Global Commerce in the Georgia Department of Economic Development. “There are currently 169,000 people in Georgia working in these technology fields, and our strong educational system provides a pipeline of diverse talent that continues to attract new companies. Both Cisco and Micron Technology cited the ability to partner with Georgia’s world-class universities and top engineering programs as key reasons for locating in the state.”

“Both Cisco and Micron Technology cited the ability to partner with Georgia’s world-class universities and top engineering programs as key reasons for locating in the state.” Kristi Brigman, deputy commissioner of Global Commerce in the Georgia Department of Economic Development

Georgia Tech, KSU, UGA and Georgia Southern are preparing students to join a future-is-now workforce far different from previous generations. Their predecessors used their education to get a great job with a pension, went to work every day doing essentially the same job for the same company for 30 years and retired comfortably. Today, engineering is innovating and moving so rapidly that professors now prepare students for jobs that can change as often as every six months.

Fused Offerings

Georgia Tech is at the forefront of a new national movement that began five or six years ago to integrate computer science and engineering courses. These hybrid courses give engineering students additional tools such as an understanding of basic software they can apply to a specific discipline. “We have a lot of these fused degrees, recognizing that the future isn’t to have a mechanical engineer, a software engineer and a finance person – and put the three together and they get the job done,” says Aaron Stebner, Ph.D., associate professor of mechanical engineering and materials science and engineering. “Every [engineer] needs cross-training in these jobs of the future, and that’s where Georgia Tech has done a really good job of developing integrated curricula.”

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Attracting New Companies: Kristi Brigman, deputy commissioner of Global Commerce in the Georgia Department of Economic Development: photo contributed

The fused curricula can span multiple engineering disciplines or even multiple colleges. The robotics program, for example, includes courses from both the College of Engineering and College of Computing to instill roboticists with the tools they need, such as an understanding of programming languages to develop software code to run robots or automation in a manufacturing environment.

Nuclear engineering students take a course on applying machine learning to nuclear engineering problems, such as monitoring data streaming from a nuclear plant for critical changes in operation. Stebner teaches a course in data foundations and machine learning for engineers in which students learn foundational coding, probability and statistics, uncertainty quantification and how to know when machine learning will provide value or advantage in solving an engineering problem.

Computer science students take his class to apply what they learn to engineering. There is a distinction, though, between an engineer who can write software code and a software engineer, says Stebner. “When a computer scientist says software engineer, they mean somebody with a skill set to work for a company whose primary business is developing, selling and supporting software that everyone can use. Engineers are generally trained to write software that solves problems and advances a technology but doesn’t need to be used by others who aren’t experts in that particular technology.”

Technology and innovation are prompting other changes. “You can’t fit everything that is important in these technologies into one four-year program anymore,” says Stebner. So, he says, Georgia Tech, as part of its professional education mission, piloted and launched affordable virtual master’s degrees and certificate programs in specialized foundational skills. After earning a bachelor’s degree, a student who wants to go into a field that is highly specialized in data analytics or cybersecurity, for example, can take one of these focused degree programs online and get a Georgia Tech master’s degree while working at their first job.

Georgia Tech’s hybrid engineering-computing reach and economic impact extend well beyond its Atlanta campus. Stebner, for example, is helping to lead a major transformation within the Georgia AI Manufacturing (GA-AIM) technology corridor. With funding from a $65 million federal grant, nine projects across the state will combine artificial intelligence and manufacturing innovations with new workforce and outreach efforts. The grant aims to increase job and wage opportunities in distressed and rural communities and among historically underrepresented and underserved people.

Included in the projects is the transformation of the Advanced Manufacturing Pilot Facility in Midtown Atlanta into one focused on AI manufacturing. Stebner’s goal is to use the fusion of data sciences and AI to create new world-leading technologies that will impact all Georgia manufacturing sectors from agriculture to airplanes.

“The pilot facility is not the only major infrastructure investment happening in Georgia AIM programs,” says Stebner. “We are also putting almost $8 million in new AI manufacturing studios in the technical college system.” These are hands-on spaces where classes can be taught while students interact and are trained on the equipment. They will have regional themes such as robotic and automated poultry processing in Southwest and Northeast Georgia, semiconductor chip processing in East Atlanta and a veteran’s retraining center in Central Georgia.

These infrastructure investments are also reaching Georgia’s HBCUs, including mobile ag tech classrooms for Fort Valley State University. “There are lots of cool infrastructure projects coming on to help give Georgians real assets to help [the state become] the nation’s leader not just in higher education but in retraining people all the way through their 70s and 80s to participate in the workforce in technology opportunities,” Stebner says.

Overhaul and Modernization

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Cross-Training Engineers:
Aaron Stebner, associate professor of mechanical engineering and materials science and engineering at GeorgiaTech: photo contributed

Beginning last year and culminating this year, The Southern Polytechnic College of Engineering and Engineering Technology at KSU, the second-largest engineering college in Georgia, completely overhauled and modernized its engineering program. “The change was huge. It’s never happened before on this scale at KSU,” says Yusun Chang, Ph.D., chair of the Department of Robotics and Mechatronics Engineering. “We made 30 curriculum changes to cope with developments in areas such as AI and robotics. We are now able to provide students with a more focused, cutting-edge program in which they can earn an innovative degree for our technology- driven world.”

The changes, says Chang, partially resulted from feedback from the department’s industry advisory board. One major change was to add a course he says has never been taught before. The course involves teaching engineering students how to improve electronic circuitry and create motors to improve the operation of joints in robots. The course resulted, says Chang, from asking industry partners: What are we missing? What do you want us to teach?

“We have a very strong industry advisory board,” says Chang, adding that board members meet every semester. One of the industry partners is SK Battery America. “Their top officials have visited us three times. We have a manufacturing system in our lab similar to theirs, and they like to hire our graduates. Their feedback was critical in helping us change our curriculum.”

In addition to the curriculum overhaul, Chang says he would like to add more electives, especially to cover AI and machine learning. He would also like to hire more faculty in specialized areas to do more research to accommodate a growing student body. This academic year (2022-2023), he says the number of master’s students more than doubled from 37 to 90. Currently, three major areas of research are soft robotics (a subfield in the design, control and fabrication of robots composed of compliant materials instead of rigid links); collaborative robotics (robots built to work safely alongside human workers in a shared workspace); and autonomous robotics (robots that act without human control in the manufacturing process).

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Robotics and Mechatronics: KSU junior Charles Koduru, who hopes to secure an internship in the field of automation: photo contributed

A strong reputation for research programs in curriculum such as robotics and mechatronics is one of the areas that draws engineering students to KSU – such as junior Charles Koduru. While at Alpharetta High School, he served as the president of the school’s robotics club and led two competition teams to state tech and robotics championships. At KSU, he is focusing his research on developing path-planning algorithms and robotic systems. “KSU provides excellent opportunities for undergraduate students to work with professors and engage in research, enabling students to gain the skills necessary for a rewarding and successful career,” says Koduru, who hopes to secure an internship in the field of automation, allowing him to gain knowledge of the robotics industry.

Multidisciplinary Approach

UGA has taken the innovative step of combining computer science, which previously was in the College of Arts and Sciences, into a jointly administered program with the College of Engineering. That program is now called the School of Computing, although software engineering is not offered as a degree. “That [decision] was in recognition of the importance of computing, machine learning and artificial intelligence not only in [the College of] Engineering but across campus,” says Donald Leo, Ph.D., dean of the College of Engineering, who added that UGA has a separate Institute for Artificial Intelligence.

Leo was a big proponent of connecting engineering with computer science because, he says, every engineering discipline is influenced by robotics, automation, machine learning and artificial intelligence. “We need to be at the forefront of making sure our engineering students are exposed to these [technologies] as we develop our curriculum and making sure students are being prepared to go into the workforce or get an advanced degree.” Engineers who use robotic systems have to understand the software that controls the robot, even though they are not “software engineers,” points out Leo.

UGA is taking another huge step forward in engineering and related computer science courses by launching a major hiring initiative that, when complete next year, will bring 70 new faculty members to campus under the broad umbrella of artificial intelligence, machine learning, data science and public health. Engineering and computer science are getting about 25 of those positions with the rest going to areas such as the humanities, the basic sciences and the College of Veterinary Medicine.

“This is innovative because we are not just focused on the STEM disciplines,” says Leo. “These ideas of artificial intelligence and machine learning are going to be spread throughout the whole university and impact everything that we do. For example, many automated manufacturing processes are developed by mechanical engineers, but the mechanical engineers would be educated on how to program the robot.” As a result, he adds, “The vast majority of engineering students today are taught basic programming skills and are expected to be able to transition these skills into various types of programming applications.”

UGA’s College of Engineering is relatively new. For many years, the engineering curriculum was focused in the College of Agriculture and designed to support the state’s No. 1 industry. In 2012 engineering was moved to a standalone college with engineering disciplines that at first included a heavy emphasis on degree programs in robotics and automation and has since expanded to include artificial intelligence and machine learning. The challenge of engineering educators, Leo says, is to “teach students how to use these tools effectively but still teach them fundamental engineering concepts so they understand the results they get from artificial intelligence and machine-learning algorithms.”

New Degree

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New Software Engineering Degree: Andrew Allen, chair and associate professor of the computer science department at Georgia Southern: photo Hillary Kay

For the fall semester, Georgia Southern University will offer a new Bachelor of Science in software engineering. It will be the only software engineering degree offered by a public university outside of Atlanta. “It was a few years in the making,” says Andrew Allen, Ph.D., chair and associate professor of the computer science department.

Previously, software engineering was available as a computer science elective certificate. Georgia Southern took the step of making it a degree for two reasons, explains Allen. For one, many students chose it instead of other electives. For another, industry advisory committees and professionals in Statesboro, Savannah and along the I-16 corridor who work with computing students on their capstone project say graduates would benefit from having stronger software engineering skills. “After we synthesized this, we realized that what was needed is a program more focused on preparing students for software engineering jobs. The new degree is focused on the skills and the professional practices needed to design, implement and maintain software systems,” Allen says.

The software engineering program will launch this fall, producing the first graduates of the four-year coursework in 2027 – although some students transferring into the program may graduate sooner. Georgia Southern is recruiting high school seniors in the Statesboro-Bulloch County area and beyond for this new degree. Plenty of regional job opportunities await the program’s graduates. “We want to make sure that there are enough people trained in skills that are needed by companies that currently exist along I-16 and the Savannah Logistics Corridor and new companies that are coming in,” says Allen.

Hyundai will be one of those major employers, he says. The carmaker expects to open its first fully dedicated electric vehicle and battery manufacturing facility in the U.S. on the Bryan County megasite in early 2025, creating 8,100 new jobs. As of March, 4,546 jobs have been announced from suppliers to the plant. “Georgia Southern University graduates will be integral to meeting the workforce needs of Hyundai Motor Group Metaplant America and the suppliers that will be locating in the Savannah region,” says Savannah Economic Development Authority President and CEO Trip Tollison. “Along with graduates from other programs like Georgia Southern’s manufacturing engineering, software engineering graduates will have the skill sets these companies are looking for.”

This isn’t the first time companies have sought engineers with software skills. In fact, the field of software engineering that is so critical to many of these jobs recently celebrated its 50th anniversary, Allen notes. “It was introduced as a discipline in the 1960s,” he says, “as an answer to a software crisis of the time when there was this exponential growth in the need for larger and more complex software systems.” The current needs are much the same as they were back then: coping with huge amounts of data, seeking interconnectivity and addressing the vulnerabilities they present. “Maybe that was a time,” he says, “we never left.”

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