ROHNERT PARK – After almost 10 years since its inception, the engineering program at Sonoma State University is emerging as a dynamic player in the local technology scene.

“We’re in the right place and time. The potential is huge. Technology is growing so fast and everything is doable now,” said SSU engineering professor Haider Khaleel, whose specialty is telemedicine and wireless devices. “The trend in technology is wearable electronics, and with computing and technology in other unexpected fields like medicine and entertainment. Gadgets we see now were hard to do 10 years ago. Sensors are fast, efficient and cheap. All of this provides motivation for the undergraduate level.”

The engineering program at SSU started small, with 20 students in 2006. In the last two years, however, the number of students enrolled in the program has doubled, from 60 to 120, and is expected to reach 150 next year. 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.

What differentiates SSU’s engineering department from those at other colleges, and makes it more competitive, is the emphasis on comprehensive, experiential education.

“Our motto is learning by doing. From day one we get students involved in laboratory courses, more so than other schools. It’s something we’re very proud of,” said Saeid Rahimi, one of the department’s professors and who spearheaded the development of the program.

A distinct advantage for the program, in terms of support and exposure, is its proximity to tech and industry firms. Also, the nature of the program is actually driven by what companies throughout the North Bay and beyond need in terms of employees.

Last year, the department created an Engineering Industry Advisory Board, partnering local tech professionals and science and engineering faculty.

The board is comprised of representatives from North Bay companies including Keysight Technologies, Cyan, Trivascular, Lemo, Intelenex, National Instruments, Parker Hannifin, and several members from the community. They are also in the process of adding a representative from Medtronic Inc. to the board.

The purpose of the committee is to align industry needs with what the school is teaching.

Basically, the faculty is asking industry professionals “what do you want from our graduates?” Rahimi said.

As a result, the department has shifted its direction. Changes to the curriculum are on the horizon. SSU Professor Farid Farahmand is the incoming chair and Mark Pierpoint, vice-president and general manager of the software modular solutions division at Keysight, is the incoming co-chair.

“The two of them are forming a team to make significant changes. The board is giving us guidelines as to what we need to pay attention to, and pointing out the direction of the curriculum,” Rahimi said.

Keysight is one of the companies that has been involved with the SSU dating back to the late 1990s when the company was Hewlett-Packard), donating money and state-of-the art equipment to stimulate an engineering program at the school. Initially, millions of dollars in equipment was donated to the department by industries and the community. The challenge now, Rahimi said, is to keep evolving, mobilize, and take the laboratories forward.

Pierpoint believes the board will rejuvenate the program and take it to the next level. The mission is straightforward.

“We are the consumer of the end product (the students). We want to help the program stay current and we want to get regular feedback; are they creating the future employees we want?” he said.

The other goal is to get accreditation for the department.

“We’re trying every angle we can to bootstrap the program so it can benefit the community as a whole,” Pierpoint said.

Benefits of this partnership to the students are tours and field trips to tech companies, and jobs. In the past three years, 13 SSU engineering graduates have found jobs at local tech businesses, including two at Keysight.

Currently, senior engineering students spend two semesters creating a technology product, in a process that emulates how an actual start-up business works. Over the course of the year, they follow rigorous steps towards completion of their project. An entire semester is devoted to designing, researching and raising funds for their project. Along the way, they work across the campus with students in the business department to draw up a business plan or grant proposal for seed money. In an experience that puts them in front of an actual venture capitalist, students must also find a client, and convince them to buy their proposed device, who then acts as a sponsor and industry mentor.

During the second semester, students acquire parts and build their project, giving their client and investors regular updates on their progress. A key component to making the device is that it be useful.

Senior projects this year include an app for smartphones that tells you when a washer or dryer has finished. While newer washers and dryers now come with this ability, the app is useful for student housing and laundromats, where a person can check if there are any available machines before traipsing down with their laundry. The device will also alert you when your machine is done.

Another project, using sensors worn on a band around the head, operates like a walking stick for the seeing impaired. The sensors detect obstacles and communicate with a smart phone, which gives directions, like a personal GPS.

Seniors Jon Porrazzo Erik Zaro and Campbell Smith have developed a device that operates like a smart fire detector. It can detect smoke, temperature, and monoxide levels, and forwards the information to a cell phone via text or email, and can potentially contact 911 in an emergency. The device also serves as a booster of Wi-Fi signals in a building where some rooms suffer from no or a very weak signal due to obstacles.

Porrazzo and his team first researched the technology, protocols on how to implement the technology, and looked to see if there are other products like it on the market. They named their company Wird, for Wireless Internal Repeater and Detector.

The team secured a small grant from SSU and received free parts and support from Keysight Technologies, Rogers Corporation, Samtec, 3M, Texas Instruments, and Advanced Circuits. Keysight also allowed them to test antenna measurements at their facility.

One reason for the success of the program is that engineering students receive a lot of support. Faculty and staff are always available, Porrazzo said, adding he feels “absolutely” prepared to start a business once he graduates. In fact, his team intends to do so, and are pursuing business and financial tactics.

“This is much more like a start-up than just a project,” Porrazzo said.

Keysight also supports engineering departments at other institutions around the Bay area like UC Davis, Stanford University, and UC Berkeley, to feed its future workforce. The company is regularly looking for 50 engineering graduates a year, just to maintain its current level of operation, Pierpoint said.

“We just can’t get enough (engineers). There’s a capacity gap and it’s a seller’s market in terms of talent,” he said, adding 40 percent of Keysight’s workforce is within retirement age.

Keysight is partial in supporting SSU because it’s local, because of the department’s pragmatic and practical approach, and its intent to support a range of demographics that includes women and those financially challenged. Pierpoint pointed out the number of graduates from the program increases every year, and “the pipeline is growing.”