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Nov. 30, 2022

Growing vital talent and innovation for Michigan industries

A new MSU center will expand capacity for preparing a highly skilled workforce and invest in innovation to support the state’s high-tech industries of today and tomorrow

Michigan made its name in the 20th century as a manufacturing powerhouse, and that legacy remains strong today. The state is a national leader for employment in industries related to automation and what’s known as Industry 4.0, or the integration of new technologies in manufacturing operations and production. But to stay competitive in a rapidly changing landscape nationally and globally, Michigan must have more highly skilled workers and modes of innovation that support industries important to its future success.

Michigan State University is a vital player in these efforts. The university is growing and evolving high-profile facilities and partnerships to keep pace with industry needs, from the Facility for Rare Isotope Beams — the preeminent user facility of its kind in the world, which recently announced its involvement in a new space electronics testing center — to MSU and Apple’s first U.S. Developer Academy in Detroit to MSU’s many industry collaborations that are reinventing the future of mobility in Michigan and beyond.

The education MSU provides prepares students to contribute immediately to high-tech manufacturing, engineering and digital innovation needs across industries.

“We are educating students to face the challenges of tomorrow,” says Abdol Esfahanian, chair of the Department of Computer Science and Engineering in MSU’s College of Engineering. “The world is increasingly software enabled and data driven, and computer science is the engine of most innovations.”

And these needs keep growing. The technology sector of Michigan’s economy — and of the United States overall — is experiencing significant shortages of workers. The job outlook for engineers continues to show a high demand for talent. And the demand for talent in technology- and data-related areas is only expected to increase. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statics projects overall employment in computer and information technology occupations will grow 15% from 2021 to 2031, much faster than the average for all occupations.

Health science, social science, business, agriculture and environmental science all now require digital technologies, automation, artificial intelligence and machine learning as standard tools, and what MSU students learn is keeping pace to help Michigan thrive.

“MSU students are rooted in Michigan, so we have the ability to contribute to building up high-tech companies in the state,” says Eric Torng, associate chair for research and faculty development in the Department of Computer Science and Engineering in the College of Engineering. “Our graduates are highly marketable and could go anywhere. They stay because they want to be drivers of innovation and progress in Michigan.”

Building for the future

Developing a next-generation workforce prepared for a technology-driven world takes investment in cutting-edge education and research spaces.

During a materials science and engineering class, students conduct a three-point bending experiment to measure the strength of glass.
Photo by Annie Barker

MSU aims to construct a new Engineering and Digital Innovation Center on its campus in East Lansing to help meet that goal. The plan is designed to meet student needs and industry demands for additional highly skilled jobs in Michigan as well as to expand research in materials science and manufacturing. The interdisciplinary center also will support a new degree program for engineering technology aligned with the semiconductor industry expansion in Michigan.

“I wish we had lab space that was dedicated to materials science, like the machine shop for mechanical engineers — somewhere we have the opportunity for hands-on experience and interdisciplinary collaboration,” says Chloe Arana, an MSU student who will graduate in December with a bachelor’s degree in materials science and engineering from the College of Engineering.

Esfahanian points to the recently constructed STEM Teaching and Learning Facility, funded in part by the state of Michigan, as an example of the potential for the new center, noting “we will need to be thoughtful and intentional in the design to meet student needs.”

After construction, MSU projects enrolling 1,500 additional students as well as hiring additional faculty in the high-demand and technology-intensive areas of computer science, materials science and engineering, data science, cybersecurity, mobility, game development, information science, artificial intelligence and machine learning. The courses and programs associated with these areas span MSU’s colleges of Arts and Letters, Business, Communication Arts and Sciences, Engineering, Natural Science and Social Science.

Students in an introduction to programming class review code on a monitor in the STEM Teaching and Learning Facility. 
Photo by Derrick Turner

"The way digital technology is going is increasingly interdisciplinary,” says Liz Munch, associate professor in the Department of Computational Mathematics, Science, and Engineering which is a joint department in the colleges of Engineering and Natural Science. Munch specializes in analysis that can quantify the shape and structure of data in an automated fashion for statistical and machine learning tools used in a variety of industries.

“You need to have people who can be collaborative across specialties. Experts in coding or analysis or modeling need to have an understanding of other areas to effectively work together,” Munch adds.

Interdisciplinary connections are an important focus for the center. In addition to classrooms, the facility will provide space for more than 50 lead researchers and their teams. The plans also include lab space for advanced materials science and computational research as well as clean rooms available to researchers across campus and to corporate collaborators.

“Bringing different research disciplines under one roof reduces the barriers for conversations and working toward solutions,” says Christina Chan, University Distinguished Professor and interim chair for the Department of Chemical Engineering and Materials Science in the College of Engineering. “It also helps build partnerships between research and curriculum as well as align our efforts with the needs of the students and industries.”

Industry 4.0

Manufacturing is in Michigan’s DNA but remaining competitive requires industries to adapt.

College of Engineering Dean Leo Kempel speaks during the award ceremony on Design Day, the college’s premier undergraduate event in which hundreds of students showcase their technical, creative and team-building skills through capstone projects.
Photo courtesy of the College of Engineering

“Manufacturing is moving toward the fusion of digital design and production,” says Leo Kempel, dean of the College of Engineering. “From ideation to its digital instantiation to the start of something physical, nothing needs to leave the digital chain. A designer makes a blueprint, and a manufacturer makes the product.”

Recently, MSU joined a network of schools with the goal to collaborate on ways to bring the semiconductor and microelectronics supply chain to the Midwest and expand supply chain ecosystems through groundbreaking research and developing top talent. The collaboration aligns with the signing of the CHIPS and Science Act, a bill designed to invest in American semiconductor manufacturers and improve the domestic supply chain.

MSU researchers already are working on semiconductors in terms of energy generation, energy storage and energy conversion using thermoelectric and solar materials. Additional research opportunities that would directly affect the semiconductor industry include developing ways to increase production and optimize chip placement within a device.

Anne Eisenlohr (left) is a teaching specialist in the Department of Chemical Engineering and Materials Science. “Students appreciate the hands-on work in the labs. You can really see the concepts before your eyes,” says Eisenlohr.
Photo by Annie Barker

Research surrounding batteries and polymers that make up materials are also connected to the planned center. Researchers are trying to find solutions for life-cycle challenges surrounding polymers, such as PFAS and microplastics, that do not degrade. Also, they are working on developing new polymers that have a set life span so they degrade in an environmentally friendly way.

“Students are very conscious of environmental impact and asking how we develop new products and processes that support sustainability. Computer science — such as artificial intelligence and data analysis — and materials and chemical engineering play a large role in answering that question,” says Chan. “As students take classes in the new interdisciplinary center and witness the synergy between education and research, they will see how they can play a role in directing the future of the planet.

“It’s important to show students that with an education in these areas, these are the types of problems you will be solving for academia and industry.”

Made in Michigan

MSU educates more Michigan students than any other institution in the state, and the student body overall is growing more diverse. Recent graduates have a 94% placement rate.

In the College of Engineering, nearly 80% of graduates are employed full time while another 15% pursue an advanced degree, and 56% of those employed remain in Michigan. In the past five years, enrollment in the Department of Computer Science and Engineering has nearly doubled. The average starting salary for the program’s graduates is nearly $76,000.

“It’s an incredible return on investment for the students,” says Kempel. “As tech- and software-based companies expand in Michigan, there are more jobs for MSU graduates.”

Many companies in Michigan actively recruit MSU students for their skills — technical and beyond.

“Bosch and MSU have worked together for years to develop high-caliber talent in mechanical, electrical and computer engineering. Additionally, software and coding skills are in high demand. At Bosch, we are looking for people who can help software connect to hardware,” says Paul Thomas, executive vice president for Bosch in North America. He also coordinates Bosch’s business with Ford Motor Company and is a member of the MSU Mobility Advisory Council. “But we also look at soft skills. Can you work well in a team and with others? We see success in graduates who have good base knowledge in their field and also are willing to be flexible, learn from others and grow.”

This interdisciplinary center will expand education and research opportunities for students and position MSU to leap forward in cultivating talent, enabling research and pursuing partnerships that support Michigan companies today and that will make the state more attractive to companies looking for the right location to flourish in the future.

By: Melody Kindraka and Deon Foster

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