Industry Meets Academia

Peter Raeth, Senior Computational Scientist, Senior Research Engineer
2014-2015 Fulbright Scholar to Zimbabwe

Academia is vastly different from the industrial world. While academia can be said to have the aim of providing a solid educational foundation to prepare students for industrial success, companies in industry often assert that they cannot find enough qualified people. As a member of industry, the Fulbright Scholar Program provided me with an opportunity to help turn this situation around.

In 2009 as I began a third decade in the computer engineering industry, I began to look over my shoulder and wonder who would replace me. Then I began asking myself about what I could do to help prepare the next generation of professionals. I began with a creating a website on career development to offer insight into what makes someone qualified for a job in industry. As I expanded this website to offer insights from others, I received an invitation to give a series of talks on career development at a conference in Harare, the capital of Zimbabwe. That experience opened my eyes to the energy, desire, need, and motivation of that nation’s population.

From that time on I began to spend two or three weeks per year in Zimbabwe and searched for a way to spend more time there, which led me to the Fulbright Scholar Program. Fulbright sent me to the Chinhoyi University of Technology as the institution with the greatest need. I undertook two courses per teaching term and assisted undergraduate, graduate, and doctoral projects during the research term, besides participating in the life of the university. This provided me with a chance to give an industrial perspective to the projects and to the topics that should be taught.

The students reacted well to the rigor required to learn and apply skills that industry needs. At first, they were hesitant to put forward the effort required to master the material, but soon their own growth began to motivate them to study more independently. It was an evolution most satisfying to behold. When one group’s course project was so good that I asked where they had learned to do such things, they replied, “You taught us, sir.” Clearly, they had put what they had learned together so that the sum greatly exceeded the individual parts. This is something that satisfies me that there are worthy professionals rising to the surface and that I have no need to be overly concerned if people from industry continue making the effort to encourage and mentor that process.

Zimbabwe is a predominantly Christian nation. While I was there, I also connected with the Chaplain’s office and the career office and they put me on their schedules to give talks to student groups and graduating students. Sharing my own testimony and experience striving to discover God’s personal calling and use one’s gifts was quite humbling for me.

How has this affected my own professional work? One effect has been the recognition that quality study material needs to be more readily available. Much of today’s literature is bottled up behind paywalls that people in developing nations can ill afford. Yet, there is much high quality in the open-access world. There are many search engines that make this literature available but none of them cover the entire space. The meta-search engine (query many engines at once) I had started took on even more urgency during my time in Zimbabwe. To watch such hungry minds go without good literature is a serious motivator. This project informs my efforts for commercial companies who need cloud computing to support their projects. The efforts in one domain feed the efforts in another and the whole is building like a snowball rolling down a steep hill. Cloud computing is a much desired skill in industry. It is easy to make this tool available at no cost to students and entrepreneurs.

There is also the matter of open-source hardware, hardware that can be built and sold from full plans that are available without fee or commission. While I had used open-source software extensively in my courses, there was no need for open-source hardware. Then my department chair began to organize a book-writing on future cities and I proposed a chapter on open-source hardware as a means to build what was required for a new city. What an interesting endeavor that has been! Open-source hardware exists mainly in the hobbyist domain but it’s strong potential has already been demonstrated by at least one non-profit. This has opened my eyes to what can be done inexpensively in industry and what can be done to assist developing nations who need to build successful farms, housing, and other infrastructure, not to mention my own field of computer engineering.

Now that I’m back in the United States, the urge to help prepare the next generation of professionals is even stronger. This has led to writing lesson plans for a college-preparatory school in Nairobi, Kenya, and I have applied for another Fulbright award to help me with this.

If you are in industry, you should consider passing on your expertise and success by becoming a Fulbright Scholar. This is a meaningful endeavor for a senior professional and one quite welcomed by the Fulbright Scholar Program and institutions abroad.