Summer program helps students develop skills for growing semiconductors industry
Devin Singh always has been interested in chips.
He’d worked on some personal projects in the past making emulators for consoles like Nintendo Game Boy and Game Boy Advance, and he was interested in the process of combining simple components into making a functional machine that could do “cool things,” like play video games.
An introduction to semiconductors course in his first year at Purdue provided a glimpse at how chips worked and what they could do, but Singh was hoping an intensive eight-week summer program would provide an in-depth look.
More than halfway through the Purdue Summer Training on Awareness and Readiness for Semiconductors (STARS), Singh has found the program has done exactly that.
“I think these eight weeks have been able to pack in a lot of information that will be useful in the future,” Singh said in mid-June. “Everything seems to make a lot more sense now. … I wasn’t quite sure how everything interconnected and worked with each other (before the program). I’ve been able to grasp a lot more advanced stuff.”
The new program, which started May 15 and runs through July 7, helps students develop deep-tech skills like IC design, fabrication and characterization of semiconductor devices and materials. More than 250 students applied for the program in its first year, and 72 were selected and divided into two tracks, chip design and semiconductor manufacturing.
The bulk of the students are in chip design, mirroring industry, and 15 are on the manufacturing side. The chip design group — led by Mark Johnson, senior lecturer in the Elmore Family School of Electrical and Computer Engineering — got students up to speed on basic electronics, worked with individual transistors, dove into a short course on basic digital logic design and finishes with a final chip design project. The end result: The designed digitally integrated circuit will be fabricated during the academic year, and once the chips are back, they’ll be mounted on printed circuit boards so students can test the chips they designed, which Johnson called “a strong bragging point.”
The manufacturing track has had students working in the Scifres Nanotechnology Cleanroom at the Birck Nanotechnology Center to learn device fabrication. That group is trained by Muhammad M. Hussain, professor of electrical and computer engineering; Muhammad Alam, the Jai N. Gupta Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering; Rahim Rahimi, assistant professor of materials engineering; and Thomas Beechem, associate professor of mechanical engineering.
STARS is envisioned as the equivalent of a summer internship. Students received a $10,000 stipend and could earn up to six credits.
“The concept of the STARS program is to get students ramped up to be able to do work in the industry sooner than they would otherwise,” Johnson said. “It was especially aimed at students who just finished their freshmen year, though not limited to those students. Students at that stage, it’s difficult for them to do much in an internship at a semiconductor company at that point, but … we’d like to get students interested doing this kind of work as soon as possible. If it’s not an option for them to intern in the semiconductor industry yet, we provide an internship in the academic environment. Then the next summer, they will be much more prepared to be able to go and be productive as interns at companies. Long term, we’d like to see that turn into students who make careers in this area. That’s the motivation for it.”
Hussain initiated the “Changing the World with Chips: Introduction to Semiconductors” course that was held last academic year, and he envisioned STARS as the natural follow-up. He designed the program after a request from Mark Lundstrom, chief semiconductor officer for Purdue.
“I came (to Purdue) with a passion and experience on training the youth especially and the people who might not have the opportunities to learn about the semiconductor fabrication technology,” said Hussain, who joined the faculty of Purdue’s Elmore Family School of Electrical and Computer Engineering from UC-Berkeley in fall 2022. “We made them curious (in the course), but then we had to physically fit them in.
“STARS is the largest cohort of the trainees in an academic institution, which is so inclusive because we do have literally more than 40 percent of our students from historically underrepresented groups. In the manufacturing track, we have nine women students out of the 15. We are organizing the industry engagement opportunities for them. There’s a lot of things going on, the meshing, networking, grouping. Not only the technical skill but also how to grow as a professional. I always say, ‘Be competent and confident and maintain integrity and everything is going to be fine.’ I think that’s the essence of the STARS program.”
Singh, who will be a sophomore in the Elmore Family School of Electrical and Computer Engineering in the fall, certainly can speak to an uptick in confidence. He’s eager to bring his increased knowledge to the Vertically Integrated Projects (VIP) team, SoCET, that Johnson advises. He already has talked to the subteam lead about a few areas in which he thinks he can make new features to the core or improve it. Next summer, he said he’ll use the STARS experience to try to garner valuable, hands-on internship experience.
“I don’t want to go to be an intern but just be, like, the coffee guy. I think this experience, I’ll be able to put on my resume and say, ‘I can do this. I was able to design a CPU for my final project and have it actually taped out,’ which is pretty cool,” Singh said. “That will show companies that this is a capable person who has used this experience to become a productive part of their company.”
STARS already has received support from key players in the semiconductor industry, including Intel, Cisco, GlobalFoundries, SK hynix, TI, L3Harris, Western Digital and Synopsys. Companies who sponsored STARS had input in the activities planned and privileged access to the student cohort.
Johnson is just excited to see eyes widen of students being exposed, maybe for the first time, to what chips can do.
“Electronics and integrated circuits tend to be something that’s invisible to people because it’s buried inside your devices. So part of this, both the semiconductors class but then this experience, is really making it visible and tangible,” Johnson said, “so that they can imagine what it means to design that. They can tell other people, ‘This is what I’m doing and that thing you’re holding in your hand, I could design a part of that.’ I think that makes it a lot more real because we have to make it visible. But once you realize what you can do with it, it’s just incredibly powerful what you can do.”