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.