Teaching the Teachers the Latest Tools for Reconfigurable Computing

NSF Workshop 2013by Marcia Goodrich, magazine editor

Associate Professor Nasser Alaraje’s (SoT) workshops on reconfigurable computing are so popular that two hours after he announced that he’d be leading another one, he had to close the registration.

Alaraje, who is chair of the electrical engineering technology program, leads the project in cooperation with Associate Professor Aleksandr Sergeyev (SoT). Alaraje is also adept at VHDL and FPGA design, and that is why his fellow academics are beating a path to his door.

Very High Speed Integrated Circuit Hardware Description Language (VHDL) and Field Programmable Gate Array (FPGA) are tools for reconfigurable computing, a computer architecture that combines some of the flexibility of software with the high performance of hardware, according to Wikipedia.

“Industrial use of FPGA-based logic design is increasing drastically, and the applications are widespread, from aerospace and defense to consumer electronics,” Alaraje said. These skills are essential for designing and building high-end electronics but are taught in only about 20 percent of the four-year electrical engineering technology programs in the US.

Funded by a $269,000 grant from the National Science Foundation, Alaraje has led three workshops on VHDL and FPGA at Michigan Tech, the most recent on May 10-11. The workshops educate the educators from universities and community colleges. Faculty members from 12 institutions in 10 states attended the most recent event, which included hands-on learning in reconfigurable computing.

“We received overwhelmingly positive feedback,” said Alaraje. “So far, we have trained about 35 faculty members in the skills they will need to develop new courses when they return to their home institutions.”

Alaraje, who spent seven years as a FPGA designer in the private sector before coming to Michigan Tech, launched the workshops to help colleges and universities better meet the needs of employers. “When I came to academia, I didn’t see the curriculum needed by industry,” he said. “Technology moves faster than the curriculum; the goal is to always bridge the gap.”

The workshops have been so successful that NSF has awarded $899,686 to expand the program to reach more college-level faculty. Alaraje’s partners in this next chapter are the University of New Mexico, Drake State Technical College in Alabama, and Chandler-Gilbert Community College in Arizona

He expects that the upcoming workshops will be just as popular as the last three. “We know the demand is there,” he said.