Saurabh Sinha: Fostering Engineering Education Worldwide

The IEEE Educational Activities vice president has an eye toward helping students in developing countries

20 February 2015

This article is part of our series highlighting IEEE volunteers.

For many students in underserved nations, attending university is a privilege. IEEE Senior Member Saurabh Sinha says those who enter his university’s engineering program are often the first in their families who are able to do so.

Sinha, dean of the faculty of engineering and the built environment at the University of Johannesburg, says a college education has a long-lasting impact on these students, some of whom go back to their communities to implement what they have learned and help others. He wants IEEE to become a global catalyst of change in engineering education and takes to heart a quote from Nelson Mandela that is part of his e-mail signature: “It always seems impossible until it’s done.”

In South Africa, where he is from, and in many other countries, especially emerging ones, Sinha is helping to create and improve educational opportunities for engineering students who do not have access to them. As the 2014 and 2015 vice president of IEEE Educational Activities, he is among other things working to create hands-on engineering programs for high school and college students, develop and improve engineering curricula, and build online courses for those seeking continuing education.

His own research is in the area of millimeter wave communications, a multiple-gigabits-per-second mobile networking technology that is made possible by newer semiconductor materials like silicon-germanium, better chip-manufacturing, and packaging technologies. The technological principle is being considered for next-generation cellular communications.

AREAS OF FOCUS

There are three principal areas within the Educational Activities Board to help draw and retain students in engineering and provide them with a better engineering education. The first is preuniversity. “We want high school students to see how they can make a difference in the world,” Sinha says.

To that end, Educational Activities developed the Engineering Projects in Community Service-in-IEEE (EPICS-in-IEEE) program in 2009, which matches high school and university students with nongovernmental organizations to work on local community projects. Since 2009, Sinha has helped initiate more than 55 such projects in 17 countries, many of them in Africa, Asia, and South America. Sinha was colead for the EPICS-in-IEEE initiative together with Kapil Dandekar from Drexel University, in Philadelphia.

Projects include solar-powered cellphone charging stations in Kampala, Uganda; a solar water heater for an orphanage in Cape Town; and an electronics waste recycling program in Cordoba, Argentina. “These types of projects ignite a passion in students to innovate, and at the same time solve a pressing problem in the community,” he says. Sinha helped review project proposals, worked directly with the volunteers, and kept track of their progress.

Although it’s difficult to gauge how many of the students who take part in these projects go on to become engineers, six of the eight high school students involved in an air-quality monitoring project that Sinha led at the University of Pretoria, in South Africa, went on to join the university’s engineering program.

The second area of focus is university education. Sinha is helping to coordinate IEEE’s efforts to assist in establishing accreditation bodies in Africa, South America, and the Caribbean as well as China and India, with the request of volunteers from these countries.

Accreditation, a fixture of developed nations, assures that an engineering program covers specific curricula so that graduates may acquire the relevant technical and communication skills needed for a job in their field. In the United States, ABET, made up of 34 professional societies, is the accrediting body for academic programs in applied science, computing, engineering, and technology. IEEE is the largest of the societies within ABET.

“The status of engineering education is quite dreary in much of the world, particularly in emerging countries, where 50 percent of the world’s population lives,” he says. Programs often deliver graduates who are unable to find jobs because they didn’t get the right skills, he adds.

One reason is the lack of globally recognized accreditation agencies. Some countries, like China and India, boast a number of world-class engineering universities but suffer from a huge discrepancy in education quality across these institutions. In July, Sinha met with representatives from China and helped outline a number of actions necessary to enable program accreditation. This includes training professionals to evaluate program materials from various campuses as well as help institutions in improving programs to meet accreditation criteria.

Lastly, the board focuses on continuing and professional education. “We want to prolong the lifelong learning experience of technical professionals, wherever they may be,” Sinha says. For him, a major undertaking in 2015 will be to propel a newly forged partnership with edX, one of the world’s largest providers of massive open online courses, to develop more engineering and technology content.

NATURAL-BORN LEADER

Sinha’s first brush with IEEE came in 1999 when he joined its student branch at the University of Pretoria. In 2002, while pursuing his master’s in microelectronic engineering at the university, he started volunteering for the IEEE South Africa Section and helped found local affinity groups of what is now Young Professionals as well as Women in Engineering. In 2002, he joined the University of Pretoria as a lecturer.

In 2005, he became involved in the activities of IEEE Region 8. Three years later, having realized IEEE’s impact on the state of education around the globe, especially in developing regions, he also became a member of the Educational Activities Board.

He earned his Ph.D. in 2008. Given a wide range of IEEE accomplishments, including the 2007 title of the “SAIEE Engineer of the Year”, Sinha was elected chair of the IEEE South Africa Section. Following his volunteer service as section chair from 2009 to 2010, he was then elected vice chair of Technical Activities for IEEE Region 8 in 2011 and 2012.

In 2012, Sinha was appointed director of the University of Pretoria’s Carl and Emily Fuchs Institute for Microelectronics. He took on his current role at the University of Johannesburg in October 2013 and was elected vice president of the Educational Activities Board a month later. Sinha is also a member of the IEEE Humanitarian Ad Hoc Committee and the IEEE Ad Hoc Committee on Strategic Planning.

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