By Ken Ogata

The National Science Foundation (NSF) has announced the Experiential Learning for Emerging and Novel Technologies (ExLENT) program, which provides experiential learning opportunities in emerging-technology fields such as artificial intelligence (AI), biotechnology, and microelectronics.

The ExLENT program hopes to increase access to STEM careers for people in nontraditional education pathways or individuals already in STEM who wish to retool into a different field of technology. Issues such as climate change and obtaining clean energy require a diverse set of perspectives to solve. Through the ExLENT program, the NSF strives to increase opportunities within technology fields crucial to solving these issues and to make sure that people are not left behind in STEM.

Since the program aims to serve individuals of many different backgrounds, the ExLENT program is divided into three tracks: Pivots, Beginnings, and Explorations.

Programs in the Pivots track will provide opportunities for individuals not currently enrolled in post-secondary-education programs (i.e., 4-year universities and associate’s degree programs) but who wish to learn the skills required to excel in emerging-technology fields.

The Beginnings track is for people with career experience and or degrees in STEM who wish to deepen their knowledge and advance their careers with more hands-on learning.

The Explorations track focuses on creating career pathways for individuals with limited STEM education. Projects in this track will offer specialized learning opportunities to help people build a strong foundation for a career in technology.

The three tracks in the ExLENT program, according to NSF (Section II):

PivotsIndividuals in non-emerging technology careers who wish to upskill and pivot to work in emerging fields; not currently enrolled in post-secondary-education programs.
BeginningsIndividuals with degrees or certificates in STEM who hope to deepen their knowledge and skills in emerging-technology fields.
ExplorationsIndividuals with limited or no specialized STEM education or enrolled in nontraditional educational pathways, such as self-learners.

All programs focus on providing mentorship for participants and lowering the barriers to entry that exist in the realm of technology. NSF expects that these experiential learning opportunities will assist historically underrepresented groups and underserved individuals in succeeding in emerging-technology areas.

One of these programs is the Chicagoland Partnership for Semiconductor and Microelectronics Experiential Learning (Mic2ExL) project, organized by Chicago State University in partnership with community organizations, Argonne National Laboratory, and industry partners such as Quilt, a Chicago nonprofit organization. The program hopes to address the need for increased domestic production of electronic components by mentoring individuals in the local Illinois tech sector.

Dr. Moussa Ayyash, director of the Center for Information & Security Education and Research (CINSER) at Chicago State University and Principal Investigator for this program believes that the focus on microelectronics and semiconductors will help increase interest in the field in the Chicagoland area.

“We picked microelectronics and semiconductors because we believe it’s [a good fit] for an experiential learning program. It’s a well-established field and we have the resources to support this as a university,” Ayyash said.

The Mic2ExL project follows a 3-phased approach to help participants get their foot in the door of the microelectronics and semiconductors industry. The first phase will help participants gain foundational knowledge about the industry, followed by experiential learning projects at Argonne National Laboratory to see real-world applications.

“We’ll connect them with mentors from the lab, where they will work on real problems and see real-world applications,” Ayyash said. “After they finish the first and the second phases of Mic2ExL, we’ll connect each participant with an employer to spend 50 hours practicing what they have learned at a company. The last phase of Mic2ExL will be a job fair.”

The project belongs to the Pivots track of the ExLENT program and is appropriately geared towards individuals who hope to gain foundational knowledge in the field of microelectronics and semiconductors, regardless of their background.

“We’re taking people who maybe don’t have any background—you can be a history major, physics, can be computer science . . . as long as you have interest in exploring a new area,” Ayyash said. “I’m an electrical engineer. This is my degree, and I know this can be boring to somebody and exciting to somebody else. That’s why we have the exposure aspect. We are exciting them and we are hoping those who finish all three phases will be ready to work at the entry level.”

Another key goal of the program is to increase participation of individuals from underrepresented minority groups in the Chicagoland area, specifically in the semiconductor and microelectronics industry. Ayyash hopes that the Mic2ExL project’s experiential-learning approach will help bridge the gap for individuals who find it hard to break into the industry because of their background.

“This is a field that has a lot of opportunities and [we want to show them that] this is what it takes to get there. We’re trying to get you to get your hands dirty working with this a little bit. It’s one of the ways to remove the barriers for them,” Ayyash said.

Another project in the Midwest funded by the ExLENT program is the Sensor Technology as a Vehicle to Cultivate Experiential Learning for Emerging and Novel Technologies project, headed by the Illinois Institute of Technology. This project is in response to the U.S. CHIPS and Science Act of 2022, which called for the need to increase domestic production of semiconductors and microelectronics to combat the chip shortage caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

This project aims to train a skilled workforce in the field of sensor technology and will be geared towards preparing veterans and underrepresented and underserved groups in STEM. With the rise of sensor technology in modern and industrial applications, this program hopes to assist individuals through mentored research and internship training.

Other awardees of the ExLENT program include Michigan Technological University, the University of California–Berkeley, Carnegie Mellon University, and the University of Cincinnati. These projects range from preparing autistic students for the AI workforce to experiential learning for emerging biotechnology careers. For more information on projects within the ExLENT program, see the table below.

The ExLENT program strives to address the lack of opportunities that many individuals face in their journey towards a career in STEM. A diverse set of perspectives is crucial to innovation in technology, and the ExLENT program is a large step towards a more-accessible STEM community.

Get Involved

Contact the Midwest Big Data Innovation Hub if you’re aware of other people or projects we should profile here, or to participate in any of our community-led Priority Areas. The MBDH has a variety of ways to get involved with our community and activities, including our Data Science Student Groups Community webinar series.

The Midwest Big Data Innovation Hub is an NSF-funded partnership of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Indiana University, Iowa State University, the University of Michigan, the University of Minnesota, and the University of North Dakota, and is focused on developing collaborations in the 12-state Midwest region. Learn more about the national NSF Big Data Hubs community.

Summary of Awardees in the ExLENT Program*

Chicagoland Partnership for Semiconductor and Microelectronics Experiential Learning (Mic2ExL)
(Chicago State University)
PivotsProvide experiential learning opportunities to individuals who hope to gain foundational knowledge in the field of microelectronics and semiconductors,
Experiential Learning for Emerging Biotechnology Careers
(HudsonAlpha Institute For Biotechnology)
BeginningsImmerse nontraditional students from community colleges in the field of biotechnology to address the shortage of trained biotech workers.
Introducing Molecular Modeling Experiences to Underrepresented Students
(Research Foundation of the City University of New York)
BeginningsProvide technical skills needed by the biotechnology industry to undergraduate students from underrepresented backgrounds.
Preparing Autistic Students for the AI Workforce
(The Pennsylvania State University, Carnegie Mellon University)
BeginningsAddress the shortage of talent in the field of artificial technology and also the discrimination that autistic students face due to social stigma; aims to teach team collaboration and communication skills through AI-focused projects; help community college students with autism obtain summer internships and careers in AI.
VETS-HASTE: Veterans SkillBridge through Industry based Hardware Security Training and Education
(University of Florida)
PivotsFight security vulnerabilities in commercial and military cyberinfrastructure by providing training to diverse groups of veterans.
Reskilling Education Via Advanced Manufacturing Practicum
(University of Cincinnati)
PivotsSupport traditionally underrepresented populations in STEM by helping them pivot into careers in manufacturing. This includes individuals who have some background in stem, but, due to major life events, have either remained unemployed for some time or require upskilling to work in the manufacturing sector.
Workforce Innovation and Inclusion in Semiconductors and Emerging Research Areas
(University of California–Berkeley)
BeginningsAddress urgent demand for workers in the semiconductor industry; provide experiential learning and professional development programs with leading industry partners and at the University of California campuses for transfer students, women, first-generation students, and underrepresented minorities.
Experiential Learning for the Mechatronics Workforce in the Upper Peninsula and Northern Michigan
(Michigan Technological University)
BeginningsMechatronics is the development of automation for industrial applications. The project will prepare a cohort of diverse participants in Michigan for robotics, mechanics, cybersecurity, and AI in industrial settings.
*Among many others; for the full list, visit: Full NSF Awardee List for the ExLENT Program