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Tech sector helping Sonoma State engineering program reach next phase


There are times when Eric Waugh has to explain to his Sonoma State University peers that he really is an engineering student.

Tucked away on the second floor of the administration building, Sonoma State's small, 10-year-old undergraduate engineering program remains an enigma to many people, on campus and off. The department offers three avenues of study — a minor and bachelor's degree in electrical engineering and a master's in computer and engineering science.

"People see this as being a liberal arts school. They don't even give it a second thought that there's engineering here," said Waugh, 23, an electrical engineering major expected to graduate this summer.

But Saeid Rahimi, the program's biggest champion and dean emeritus, is out to change that. And he's once again turning to local tech industry heavyweights, whose financial contributions were instrumental in bringing both master's and bachelor's engineering programs to the North Bay campus.

Late last month, the university's engineering department convened the first meeting of the Engineering Industry Advisory Board, a panel made up of local tech professionals and science and engineering faculty. The panel's goal is to strengthen mutually beneficial ties between industry and the university's engineering program and students.

The group — whose representatives include professionals with Agilent, Micro-Vu and Cyan Intelenex — will serve as a springboard promoting the engineering school to prospective students; creating more internship opportunities; and fostering greater research collaboration and technology transfer between local industry and the school.

Other goals include enhancing continued education at the graduate level for locally employed technology professionals. There's even talk of creating a North Bay high-tech hub and think tank that would serve as an incubator for local innovation.

In essence, the goal is to push Sonoma State's engineering program to the next phase, one that will benefit both students and the region's high-tech industry.

"This department really is in a startup mode," Waugh said. "I think we need to show that electrical engineering is successful first, and we need to graduate more students and we need to ensure that they're working in the area, in Sonoma, Marin and Napa."

Rahimi said he views the local tech industry as the engineering department's "customers" and that it's important to gauge their needs.

"High tech relies on a backbone of research and education in technical fields," he said. "Why can't we use the board as a think tank for the future?"

Rahimi's work to bring engineering to Sonoma State is well-known among local faculty and high-tech professionals. In fact, it was his dogged campaign and tireless outreach to the people behind Sonoma County's high-tech success stories that helped raise the millions needed to launch the engineering master's program at the turn of the millennium.

Back in the fall of 2000, Rahimi's vision got a pledge of $4 million from six engineers of the former Cerent Corp., the Petaluma fiber-optics firm that was acquired by Cisco Systems for $7.3 billion in stock in 1999. Other companies followed, including a $1 million donation from Optical Coating Laboratory Inc., or OCLI, and $1.1 million from Advanced Fibre Communications.

The goal back then was to plant the seed of technology education in Sonoma County.

"During those days, it was difficult to find and recruit talent locally," said Ajaib Bhadare, a Telecom Valley pioneer and one of the six former Cerent engineers. Bhadare is a member of the new engineering advisory panel.

"It hurt us building Cerent," he said, adding that if there was a local supply of talent, it would be easier to grow the company.

"I don't understand why Sonoma State University never had a science and engineering program ... it's known as a liberal arts school, but I've never seen a huge company being started by the liberal arts industry."

Bhadare emphasized that local tech companies are job creators, though on a smaller scale than the likes of Bay Area gargantuans Google, Facebook and Apple.

"We're so close to Silicon Valley; sometimes its feels like we're misrepresented," he said.

The economic benefit would be measurable "even if we had 1 or 2 percent of the industry that is there in Silicon Valley down the road from us ... we're so close to them and yet we're not benefiting from it."

SSU President Ruben Armi?na said the university supports growth of its engineering program but only as a response to market demand. For the last 10 years, he said, the demand for electrical engineers has declined as a result of the decline of the area's telecommunications industry.

Armi?na said the university doesn't really have a "school of engineering." He said it has programs in electrical engineering and their current size is a reflection of student demand.

"We offer it and we have a capacity to expand that pending student demand," he said. "If there are more students who want to major in these programs and are capable of doing that, we have places for them ... it's not, 'If they build it, they will come.'

"We are not in the position to have a full school of engineering given the fact that there a lot of (California State University) campuses that have that and are not at capacity."

Armi?na said that over the years there have been numerous job reductions among local tech companies, and the rate of hiring continues to be anemic.

He said local industry could do its part by assuring "students that there are jobs available and there will be jobs available for them when they graduate."

There are currently 8,500 tech producing jobs in the county, which comprises 5 percent of total employment. Just before the financial crash in 2008, there were about 10,000 tech jobs in the county, said Ben Stone, director of the Sonoma County Economic Development Board.

The loss of technology-related jobs was part of "across-the-board" job losses that occurred in a number of industry sectors in Sonoma County, Stone said. Industries such as tourism and wine are recovering more aggressively than the tech sector, he said.

Even so, the idea of "growing your own" technology workforce is an important part of building economic stability in the region, Stone said. Specific areas that offer a potential for growth include medical devices, animation and biotechnology, among others, he said.

Stone said that in any region the tech sector needs advanced education. Tech and manufacturing jobs, though hit hard by the recession, are the highest paid jobs on average, Stone said.

"Because they are the highest paid jobs, it means more income to the area," he added. "As companies do well, they hire more services ... it becomes a source of new jobs."

Mark Pierpoint of Agilent agreed. Pierpoint, the company's vice president and general manager of the software and modular solutions division, said that demographics are already driving market demand.

"The baby boom is rolling through — we're going to get a significant number of retirees," Pierpoint said. "At least 40 percent of our engineers could potentially retire in five years."

Pierpoint, who also sits on the panel, said that Agilent has been committed to Sonoma States's engineering programs since their inception, and has contributed both financially and through donations of equipment. The companies that contributed to the programs more than a decade ago share that commitment.

"We're all firm believers in this idea of clustering," Pierpoint said, adding that having a local university as a resource is "a key part of that activity."

Pierpoint said he and other local technology professionals have been encouraging Sonoma State's engineering program to put greater emphasis on practical learning. That could set the program apart from those at other schools, he said.

At campus last week, electrical engineering students like Waugh tinkered with engineering projects that were very much practical.

Waugh is working on a something called SenCell, a device that sends sensor data over a cellular network to a web server to be deployed in the Fairfield Osborn Preserve on Sonoma Mountain.

Scott Parmley, an electrical engineering major who is the advisory board's student member, is working on a system of smart sensors that would monitor and regulate water consumption in an agricultural setting. The sensors, which would communicate wirelessly with a computer, would track in real time, among other things, the flow of water and the moisture of the ground.

Parmley said he's excited about fostering greater ties with local industry. For his part, he said he hopes to encourage local industry leaders to provide more scholarships to students so promising students can focus more on their studies.

But he's also looking for a little guidance.

"It's good for us to know what companies are looking for," he said.

(You can reach Staff Writer Martin Espinoza at 521-5213 or martin.espinoza@pressdemocrat.com.)