In this episode, our guest is Professor Ashfaq Khokhar, who is the Palmer Department Chair of the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECpE) at Iowa State University (ISU). Here, we talk about undergraduate and graduate education and the resources available within the department to promote student learning and success. This episode was conceptualized, recorded, edited, and produced by Santosh Pandey from the ISU ECpE Department. The transcript was prepared and edited by Yunsoo Park, Ankita and Richa Pathak from the ISU ECpE Department. The communications and digital hosting was handled by Kristin Clague from the ISU ECpE Department. The music was provided by Skilsel from Pixabay (Track Title: Inspirational Motivation).
Welcome to our ECpE podcast series where we talk about exciting activities and developments within our department. I'm your host, Santosh Pandey. Our guest today is Professor Ashfaq Khokhar who is the Palmer Department Chair of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Iowa State University. Dr. Khokhar, it's a real pleasure to have you with us today. Today, we want to talk about our ECpE students, your motivation, your thoughts, and vision to enhance student experiences within the department. To start with, could you tell us about the size of the department in terms of the number of faculty, staff, undergraduate, and graduate students? Thank you, Dr. Pandey. First of all, for this opportunity. It's a pleasure to be joining you on this podcast. As for your question, our department is currently have about 67 faculty members and about 27 staff members. We have close to about 1,850 undergraduate students and about 350 to 370 graduate students. Out of these graduate students, there are about a hundred and 76 Ph.D. students, and remaining are Master of Science and Master of Engineering students. So how does the size of the department compare with those of peer institutions? So, in terms of student body, we may be among the largest in the nation, but in terms of faculty size and staff, I think we are at least 20 to 30 faculty members smaller than other departments of the same student body size. So that basically gives us a faculty-to-student ratio a little bit on the higher side. Moving on to the next question, I assume the recent pandemic has affected student education in the department. What impact did you see on student education, and how did you address the challenges that came forth? Yeah, I think pandemic has been a very difficult time for everybody. And particularly for students, it has been quite challenging to have a completely new way of learning - Learning from the dorm rooms, learning from your parents living rooms, and all sorts of different challenges. And that impacted students in major ways. And what we saw over the months when the pandemic started, we saw involvement of students, enthusiasm of the students and their motivation to move on diminishing. And that was a major challenge for the department. And particularly when we were not with them, they were joining us remotely. So, I think what we did was we started having more and more interactive sessions. Our advisors started reaching out to those students who we felt that they needed help. So we increased the number of activities where we had different touchpoints with the students just to make sure that we are connected and we know what's going on with these students. I'm glad that we are back in person and the things that slowly started improving. But still, I think it's a major challenge moving forward, and it's all across the nation and all across the world, we have the same problem. Right. Because, if you really look at it this way that, less motivation in the student, meaning, learning challenges and whatever you have learned or whatever you have undertaken in these pandemic related semesters, the impact of those learning is going to also show up in the later years. And it is also going to show up in the workplace. So, I think all of us as a society have to understand that and have to rise up to the challenge to make sure that these students are not in their workplace and their professions, they get the assistance that they need because of the challenges that they have gone through during their studies. So, could you talk about the different programs offered within the department and how can the incoming students benefit from these programs? We have four undergraduate degree programs in the department; our typical electrical engineering, Bachelor's in Electrical Engineering, and Bachelor's in Computer Engineering. Then we also jointly run program with the Computer Science, that's Bachelor's of Software Engineering. And then recently we have added a new program. It is Bachelor's in Cyber Security Engineering. And this is one of the latest additions in our department. And I would say that across the U.S. and across the world, we are among the very first few departments who have engineering degree in cyber security. And that basically puts us on a very unique footing to prepare students in this particular profession. In addition to that, I think I just must add that we have also started a minor in Cyber-Physical Systems, and that's another addition in the department in terms of undergraduate programs. Okay. So, we do have a significant student population from world. How do you see our ECpE programs appealing to international students? I think that basically brings back to your previous question that we one thing that I would like to add is the graduate programs. The graduate programs we have are Master of Science and Master of Engineering, and then Ph.D. Okay. And the specialties within the Master and Ph.D. Programs are dependent on how students choose what kind of coursework they do. So , we have quite a bit of variations, and those variations is what basically addresses your question regarding student population because majority of our overseas student population is in our graduate programs. So, our ability to offer graduate programs are that are flexible. We have a lot of online components, also in the number of different courses that we offer - that is very attractive to international students. And therefore, we have enjoyed students in all of our undergraduate programs, whether it's an online degree in Cyber Security or whether it's in-person degree programs, Master of Engineering, Master of Science, and since we have this flexibility that these Master program can be done with only coursework only, with the Creative Component, and also Master with Thesis. So, these three different options when you offer to the students, we all of a sudden become very attractive to different types of students who wants to either just take the courses and get into the workforce, or they want to take the courses and do some research to see whether they want to further pursue Ph.D. So a lot of these different options are becoming very attracted to our students. And I think that's what is very unique to the kind of degrees we offer. And the other thing is we have a lot of hands-on components. A lot of our courses are full with lab experiments with actually building things. So that's also very attracted to our students. So within those degree programs, can the students also work with faculty on their research, and are the research labs open to students? Yes, starting from undergraduate, we do have a regular stream of students from the undergraduate programs who come and do research with faculty. And most recently, we also started a scholarship program. Thanks to our donors and our, you know, stakeholders, alumni who has funded this program that allows us to offer scholarship to students who wants to do research during, for example, their summer time or during their regular semester. And while doing research, they earn a little bit of money, but also they get a good research experience. And then at the Master level, I said, we have course only option, but also we have Master with Thesis, Master with Creative Component, and those two options put the students right in front of the faculty in their labs, hand to hand, working with the faculty, working with the senior Ph.D. students and creating those collaborations that are going to be a great experience for them when they go out into the workforce. So, a follow-up question on that. After the students graduate, what kind of career opportunities are available to our students, and what are some of the companies or industries that recruit our graduating students? I think it's a great question. I think Electrical and Computer Engineering as a one of the most exciting times in the history of our profession. Because the way society is evolving, the way we are going toward digitization, the role of Electrical and Computer Engineering becomes even greater. Almost every aspect of our society is being impacted by Electrical and Computer Engineering. And I think, example is just a way simple thing. Just look at in your hands - the cell phone that you have. It is an embodiment of our profession. Everything in that cell phone, from its wireless communication to its ability to have you run so many different applications simultaneously, its ability to have you capture very high-quality videos and store them in a very compressed manner to security, to long battery life, and all sorts of these things. Everything that you talk about is it's basically something has to do with Electrical and Computer Engineering and how it is impacting rest of our society, rest of our, you know, aspects of our life - It can communicate with our garage doors, it can communicate with our, you know, microwaves and with our light system in the house, with our utility meters and all sorts of things that are happening. I think you will see that the impact that this profession, electrical and computer engineers are going to have is going to be tremendous in the coming decades. So the opportunities for jobs are available in almost all aspects of our lives. So for example, from traditional companies who generate electricity, who distribute electricity, who make computers, who make cell phones, who do the programming of these cell phones, who make all these other devices that talk about, and then improving the quality of, for example, agriculture, quality of animal farming, quality of healthcare in our hospitals because our ability to capture images of human body and process them and understand them, our ability to listen to our heart, listen to our lungs and ultrasound, you name it. Every aspects of our living is being impacted. So, therefore, opportunities for our graduates are in all these disciplines. So, do you think compared to previous decades today the value of Electrical and Computer Engineering doesn't have to be broadcast? I feel the students are already prepared when they come. I completely agree with you that, you know, it is so ubiquitous, I would say. Right. That you even don't know that what you are experiencing in your, in your daily life, how much impact it has from this particular discipline. And I just generally give an example sometime that, you know, human beings are good because we have three things - we can sense and we can process, and then we can act on it. If you just take these three things sense, process and act, this clearly defines Electrical and Computer Engineering. Our sensing abilities are maybe our ability to see, our ability to hear, our ability to smell, our ability to touch - each one of these sensors designs. These days are being done by electrical engineers in, in a ways that has never been done before. Then, after sensing, you take that data, you take it somewhere to the computer, whether it's in the cloud or somewhere locally on your phone, you process it, but you have to process it really fast because human beings are good at processing really fast. So, therefore, these computers, if you want to really use them in a good way, they have to process that data very fast. So that's where Computer Engineering advances are going to come into picture, and then to do something after the processing, to control something, to change something - that's again a very traditional field of Electrical and Computer Engineering - the Control System. Right. I say that advances in these three areas are transforming human experience on this earth. And we have great opportunities for our students. What do you think is the role of family, parents, and friends in motivating students to understand the value of Electrical and Computer Engineering? My message would be that the name Electrical and Computer Engineering is a very limiting name. I wish we had a better name for this profession because, if you see, it captures so many different aspects of our life. You know, previously Electrical Engineering, when you talk to people, they thought well you know it has something to do with our houses, but that is just one very tiny aspect of the profession. There are other avenues that are really, really becoming even more dominant. So , I would say to parents and to the counselors and to the students that just explore the world around you and try to find answers to see how these things is coming together. What kind of technologies are being put in to make this happen? And you will see that this is what Electrical and Computer Engineering is. And we have a slogan in our department. We have a slogan. We say the Future is What We Do. Basically, what we are trying to convey with the slogan is that whatever we electrical engineers and computer engineers and cyber security engineers are doing today, that is going to define what the future is going to be tomorrow for our society. That's great. So, moving on to the next question, we know the department offers a number of scholarships and assistantships to students. Could you elaborate on that, and what is the process to apply for these funding opportunities? Yeah, so I think we have quite a few opportunities for students to get scholarships. First of all, let me start with undergrad students. So, for undergrad students, we have scholarships that are merit-based, that are need-based. And there also that are based on certain interest of our alumni, our donors who have donated those projects. So, we have millions of dollars that we spent every year on these scholarships. And we are thankful to our donors and our alumni who have gotten education from there and thought that whatever they got from this particular department, they really felt that they owe back to the department. So, they donate generously. And that has created so many different types of scholarship that I can tell you that the number of scholarships available at Iowa State University are significantly higher than any other comparable school in this nation. And I can tell you from my own experience. I have come to Iowa State after serving at four different other institutions. And I have experienced public and private universities, and the number of scholarships we have for undergraduate students purely because of the philanthropic of our alumni and our donors is hardly matchable by any other program in the nation. So, we have plenty of opportunities. And then we have opportunities, for example, the donor says that I want to make sure that the number of female students are increased, and I want to, you know, fund the scholarships. So we have a lot of such scholarships that are oriented towards a particular cause, towards a particular, you know, interest of a donor. So many different opportunities are available, and they're available throughout the four years. We offer the scholarship at the admission time. And then we also offer the scholarships as you move along in your program, during sophomore year, during junior year, and during senior year, we have plenty of different opportunities for you to get additional scholarships. On the graduate side. I would say, on the average, we are spending close to 16 -17 million dollars of funding every year on our research. And majority of this research is being done with the graduate students involvement. So, you can say directly the 16 million of funding is impacting the number of students that are getting scholarships from our department in the form of research assistantship. In addition to that, we offer close to million dollars of teaching assistantship because we need to have those TAs to assist us in the classes. So, that is an additional funding of 40 to 50 students every semester, fully-funded graduate students. So, plenty of opportunities available. That's great. So, what kind of technology resources are available for our students, for example, say in the teaching labs? So, we have tried to make sure that whatever we do in our teaching labs, it has some aspects of relevance to the industry. So ,we make sure for example, in our Electrical Engineering labs, the kind of instruments that we use, they are very similar to what is being used in the industry,. So, we have a constant feedback mechanism from our External Advisory Board, which has membership from different industry stakeholders around us. They give us a feedback as to what kind of tools, what kind of instruments, what kind of platforms the industry is using. So therefore, we have a very similar nature of the platforms, and we teach our students - whether it's an oscilloscope, whether it's a probe, whether it's any other component related to, you know, analysis or related to building a particular software system, we have tried to make sure that what we do is reflected by the practice in the industry. And one example I can give you one more example is, for example, in Cyber Security Engineering courses, we bring in scenarios and security threats kind of examples that are most currently observed by the community, by the security community. We bring those scenarios, we bring those examples, and we also have the latest operating systems, latest you know, network stacks put together to make sure that the students do a hands-on kind of analysis of those threats for these systems. So, we are in a constant feedback mode of going to the industry, telling them what we do, and then asking them how we can further improve. And that's a very critical part of our program. And it's also a requirement from our accreditation body, the ABET, that asks us to not only show what we teach but also show why we teach it, how we measure it, and then how we improve it. And then this whole cycle need to be you know, need to be implemented in a continuous manner. Could you tell why ABET accreditation is so important for us or for our programs? Yeah, I think accreditations are always important because they are kind of gives you the ability to how your program is related to the body of knowledge, the body of the profession, are there expectations. So, when you have an accreditation by body like ABET, it accredits all the engineering and technology degree programs, undergraduate programs. In that accreditation process, the accreditors are recruited from all over the place. They are industry practitioners. They are your peer professors from other institutions. So every five years, they come, and they have a comprehensive go through of your programs, including curriculum, including lab technologies, including teaching methodologies. I mean, all sorts of things, the grading mechanisms, they, they go through each and everything, and then they accredit you. And by doing that accreditation, we get a confirmation, whether we are at par at pace with the expectations of the industry, with the expectations of the workplaces, and so on and so forth. So, it's very important from that perspective that we do get an independent review of our programs by a completely independent body that has nothing to do with the university or any other stakeholders. So, otherwise, it'll be a conflict of interest. Right. So, one last question, where do you see the department going in the next five to 10 years? And are we aligned with the national trends in engineering to meet the 21st-century challenges? Yes, I think it's a, once again, a great question, Dr. Pandey. As I said earlier, these are very exciting times for the discipline. A lot of great things are happening in the discipline that are going to make our society a better place for everyone. So, in the next five to ten years, I see that we keep on edging as one of the top educational programs in Electrical and Computer Engineering. Currently, we are ranked among the public schools, Electrical and Computer Engineering programs. We are ranked among the top 23. So, I see myself edging further into the top-tier, top 10- 15 programs in the coming five to ten years. And, seeing our faculty doing cutting-edge research in areas that would really matter. And I said, you know sensing is one of the things that we are really investing heavily. We have more faculty. We have all sorts of sensors, including you, in the Biosensors areas. So, I think on the other side, we have security is a major scenario happening because we are becoming more digital, more online society. So ,security is going to become an important aspect of our life. And when I say security, I mean Cyber Security. And so, we are heavily investing into that, and we are considered among the leaders in the nation in terms of engineering security, Cyber Security education. And then energy. We are well known in the nation for our strength in our Power Systems and Energy programs. And, I think we will keep on having that edge, and keep ourselves abreast with ahead of the curve compared to rest of the, you know, programs in the nation. And one final thing. If you recall, we have been just awarded one of its kind project by National Science Foundation on next generation of wireless communication, particularly for rural areas, because even now, the wireless communication in rural area is not penetrating enough because of multiple reasons. And I think one of those reasons is, of course, economics. So ,we have been awarded about 16 million by National Science Foundation to set up a Living Lab. It's led by Dr. Hongwei Zhang. And we are going to set up a living lab to experiment wireless broadband for rural areas, particularly areas like Iowa and other Midwest states, where we have large swaths of lands. We have communities that are far and widespread out, and they are very critical part of our national economy. We have agriculture, we have animal farming, we have all other sorts of technologies that are coming out from the Midwest, but not having a good broadband access is going to be impediment for further progress. So, we are glad that we are leading the nation in that respect from Iowa State, looking for solutions that will redefine wireless for rural areas. So ,I think these are just examples of a few areas that we'll be concentrating on. Do you have any final thoughts or words of wisdom for our current or potential students? I think I'm gonna say it again, that these are exciting times. And being in this profession, being in Electrical and Computer Engineering, I think you will see it's a very rewarding profession and it's a very diverse profession. You can be an electrical engineer, and you can be saving lives by designing and developing advanced healthcare systems. And you could be electric engineer, and you could be developing battery technology to have, you know, electric vehicles that can go on for hundreds of miles without any recharge. And so there are so many different opportunities, and I would just say, explore your options, come and join us. It'll be exciting for us to have more diverse student body, including students from all sorts of groups, whether it's gender-based, whether it's based on economic status. We would really like to have a diverse set of students and we will strive to make sure that our education programs are not biased towards any one particular group. We will have equal opportunity for everybody, whether who could afford this education or who could not afford this education. We have plenty of options, plenty of opportunities. Come and join us and make us proud. Well, thank you so much for talking to us today. We thank you definitely for your leadership efforts wish you all the very best for your future endeavors. Thank you. Thank you very much for this opportunity. Thank you. Thank you. Bye.