How a master course can provide insights into real-life industrial challenges
In the previous blog on the master course “plasma processing science and technology” given at the Eindhoven University of Technology, a nice and concise explanation about the goal and structure of this master course has been shared. The blog described how this relatively “new type of teaching”, challenged the students to take a sneak peek in the real world of the semiconductor industry and investigate a problem with no clear answer written beforehand. However, this first blog only provided insight from the teacher’s perspective, in this blog we aim to show the other side: what do the students think? What have they learned? And what do they still remember and use after multiple years? And because only answering these questions using words might not give the reader the full picture, we added some clear examples of quotes and images right out of the student reports, visualizing their obtained skills.
How did we do it?
We both followed the course this year along with 31 other students. In order to obtain a good overview of the opinions of all these different students we held a short questionnaire with broad and open questions. We used questions like “what inspired you about the assignment in the course?” and “What did you think about the openness of the assignment?”. The main goal here was to discover what students liked and disliked about the course, how certain aspects of the course influenced their way of thinking and how they thought the obtained knowledge and skills will contribute to their future career paths.
In addition, two older students, who participated in the course several years ago, were also interviewed. This was done to figure out which elements of the course might have caused an impact on their studies and work in the long run. Analyzing all the content we got back (in total there were around 20 replies) we discovered some very interesting insights.
Bridging theory and practice
For starters we feel that there is a general concern among students from theory-heavy studies, that there is a lack of application of the obtained knowledge directly in real world industrial problems. And that only when people start their first job in industry, they start to discover this side of technological innovation. Even studies as applied physics (despite what the name suggests) have a relatively low number of application-oriented courses. According to the questionnaire held under the students participating in this course, the fact that this course does manage to bridge theory and practice is exactly one of the reasons why the assignment was so well received.
The need to directly link information from the lectures to other “more industrial” sources and real devices, creates context and gives more relevance to the course. But even more important, it also made the course much more enjoyable and interesting for many students, since they now knew what they were working towards. Students also mentioned that the assignment highly contributed to their general knowledge of companies within the semiconductor industry and the products they are developing, giving them a better image of where they can end up later in their lives.
Another key element of the assignment was the open-ended character, in which no pre-defined outcomes were given. Especially the starting point was therefore hard to determine, since there was not immediately a clear vision of the direction you were supposed to take and many hours of reading might still not bring you any closer to the actual solution.
Without the predetermined outcomes, the general idea is that there is no right or wrong answer, since in almost every case not all the information is available to complete the picture. It was mentioned that especially this aspect gave confidence and assurance, since the students were less worried about making mistakes when trying to find the right path. It also paved the way towards more variation and creativity within the literature study.
The open assignment also gives a much more accurate representation of how challenges within companies are handled and solved, in opposition to standard textbook questions that are often asked. However, having such an open assignment also brings to light the division in character traits: where some people thrive when getting the opportunity to find their own path, others prefer much more predefined structure.
Diving into the literature
The strong connection the assignment had with industry also showed the culture gap between industry and academia and then specifically with respect to literature. Where in academia most sources are public or at least obtainable, in industry much information is kept secret. This requires a different research approach, in which we were challenged to learn to interpret new kind of sources.
For example, many students were completely unfamiliar with using patent literature before this assignment. Although patents are one of the few public sources containing industrial information, we feel that they are especially hard to read and analyze, since they are often written rather vaguely and lack relevant explanation.
One student mentioned how the assignment also resulted in being much more critical towards several sources, since companies might deliberately withhold or even change information in order to keep ahead of the competition. This made the skill of cross-referencing and connecting different sources together extremely important.
An addition to this, as stated by another student, is that you will never be able to find all information online, you will have to make smart assumptions and use your own reasoning in order to come to conclusions, as you can also read nicely in the quote above. Sometimes you can even be surprised by how the pieces fall together quite easily once you have invested some time and effort into the research.
The subjects for the assignment –including things like the newest transistor concepts, patterning techniques and memory devices– were highly appreciated by the students. Not only did we discover many present-day techniques that we had never even heard of before, the subjects also showed how complex and technological advanced real-world challenges can be compared to textbook problems.
The manufacturing of the investigated devices requires many (plasma) processing steps and often many different materials need to be used. Figuring out all the details of every manufacturing step is incredibly hard, especially when a company is trying to keep most of this information private. Despite it being difficult, many students discovered that with the necessary effort and puzzling a lot more can be figured out than you might at first expect. Below, a very nice example of a completely unraveled process flow made by a fellow student.
Unraveling state-of-the art technologies and discovering the current limits gave the students (us included) a feeling of relevance and motivation to contribute to future device concepts and to push the limits even further.
A past student perspective
In order to put the opinions we gathered this year in perspective we have also interviewed two former physics students that followed the course in 2018 and 2019. We asked them what the course looked like in their respective years and if the course influenced them in their studies and job choice. Lastly, we focused upon which skills they obtained during the course and which they still use today.
They both described the course as very applied and challenging. Judging from what they described, the idea of the course has remained constant over the years. What has changed are the exact topics investigated, which have become increasingly more high-tech, which is of course expected as technology progresses.
Both of the interviewed former students said their further studies have been heavily influenced by the course. One of them described that the course functioned as a confirmation of his interests in plasma processing and he is currently doing his graduation project in this field. The other one did an internship at “Prodrive technologies” as a result of the course, diving deeper into some of the topics that were discussed.
Besides the information on processing techniques and high tech devices the course provided, they also mentioned the large focus on obtaining the necessary “research” skills. Depending on the kind of career you will pursue in the future, you will not always keep using details of the subject matter of every course you followed, however both former students mentioned they are still using skills they obtained in this course.
These include reading literature, both scientific and patent literature, and also interpreting how trustworthy a source is and thinking outside the box when gathering information. The course also improved their skills in writing a concise report with all relevant information, without losing the focus on what is really important. And lastly they learned a lot from reading reports of other students and doing a peer review, as this forced you to look critically at someone else’s work in order to help them improve, while at the same time it also helped them improve their own work.
Takeaways for the future
We personally felt that a big advantage of this assignment was the fact that you had to do the assignment on your own. Nowadays many (if not most) courses in university let you work on (large) assignments in groups. Although this allows you to learn how to efficiently collaborate with others, in our opinion we have gone a bit overboard with this. Being able to collaborate with others is important, yet being able to work independently is very important too. Besides, group work also has its downsides. We all know the stories of assignments done in groups of four, where really all the work is done by only one or two of the students. But even if the tasks are equally divided, students continuously chose what they are already good at. If you are bad at literature research, you make the code; if you have difficulty explaining the results properly, you focus on the theory. Having to do an assignment alone forces you to develop your skills all across the board, with no possibility to free-ride or passing on the more difficult tasks to others. As a bonus it will feel extra rewarding once you have put in the effort. So we would like to give as a take-away to carefully consider if some assignments could not just as well be done alone.
We also felt like this course really gives a good example of how to apply the challenge-based learning concept in a way well-received by students. From forming a bridge between academia and industry to letting students puzzle with different types of literature to form one complete story. But off course no course will ever be completely perfect and therefore you will want to keep an open mind and continuously listen to feedback when giving such “innovative” and challenge-based courses.
Students from this course for instance warned that although open assignments have many benefits, there is also a downside. Many students experience difficulty in finding a good starting point with the risk of getting stuck. Students therefore often need and appreciate some concrete tips and tricks on how to tackle these problems and do not want to be completely left to their own fate. Also finding a balanced workload in a course can be challenging. Off course studying at university does not have to be easy and things are allowed to take a little bit more effort, but there is a limit to what is possible. If courses become too large this is often not beneficial to the accomplishments and obtained skills of the students. These tips are not only applicable for this course, but are important to reflect upon in all challenge based assignments.
In general, this particular assignment gave the students a very interesting sneak peek into the real world. The assignment was complex, as many students acknowledged, and very open, making it sometimes difficult, especially at the start. However, exactly these difficulties also provided a very accurate reflection of reality and knowing how to tackle these problems will help you a lot in your future career. This way we feel the course decreases the gap between theory and practice and helps future engineers get ready for their jobs in industry. All in all, we think multiple elements from this practical assignment that can be found in this blog can also be applied in many other courses. We would like to end this blog with encouraging other students to follow courses like this and to dive deeper into the “real” world of high-tech semiconductor device concepts.
Written by Lian de Jong and Mariska Schalk