[EAS] Structure of Education

pjk pjk at design.eng.yale.edu
Mon Dec 20 19:54:07 EST 2004

Subject:   Structure of Education

(from NewsScan Daily, 20 December 2004)

      A self-taught computer chip designer in rural Oregon has
managed to squeeze the entire circuitry of an old Commodore 64 PC
onto a single chip, which she has incorporated into a joystick that
connects by cable to a TV set, giving users access to 30 vintage
video games -- mostly sports, racing  and puzzle games from the
early '80s. The device requires no separate game cartridges -- all
the entertainment is in the joystick. Designer Jeri Ellsworth says
her first venture into toy making hasn't made her a mint, "but I'm
having fun." Ellsworth's efforts in reverse-engineering old
computers and giving them new life through custom chips has
generated a cult following among "retro" PC enthusiasts, as well as
a number of job offers from people impressed with her passion. "It's
possible to get a credential and not have passion," says Rapport
Inc. CEO Andrew Singer, who  compares her to Apple co-founder Steve
Wozniak and Macintosh designer Burrell Smith, neither of whom had
formal training when they made their mark in computer design. The
$30 Commodore 64 joystick is being marketed by  Mammoth Toys, and
has been a big hit on the QVC Web site.
(New York Times  20 Dec 2004)

It is a charming story. Not infrequently we hear of such self-taught
individuals performing startlingly well in the high-tech world of
computers or the Web. 

I am always delighted to hear of such skilled enthusiasm, but also
cannot help wonder about the evolving nature of technical work and
the structure of learning that gets people to such skill levels.
What does it say about the (presumably) deeper and more structured
education available in the engineering curricula of colleges and
universities? Even parts of what Ms. Ellsworth has done would be an
eminently respectable EE Senior Project.

Of course I assume that the typical BS in EE would be much more
comprehensive than the skills Ms. Ellsworth needed for her project.
And she may be one of those singularly gifted individuals to whom we
ought to offer scholarships and degrees.

She is also gratifyingly aware of the need to strive for simplicity
and historical perspective, values academia sometimes slights:

> Recently she interrupted a conversation with a visitor in her home
> to hunt in between the scattered circuit boards and components in
> her living room for a 1971 volume, "MOS Integrated Circuits," which
> she frequently consults. The book concerns an earlier chip
> technology based on fewer transistors than are used today. "I look
> for older texts," she said. "A real good designer needs to know how
> the old stuff works."

Do we examine the nature, depth and realm of application of what we
teach in engineering curricula often enough, and in adequate
proportion to the great expense of typical such educations?


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