IN the clean room at the Massachusetts Microelectronics Center, trays of round, mirror-like silicon wafers sit ready to be etched with the hopes of hundreds of undergraduate students. The grand experiment begins this fall when workers at this new semiconductor chip foundry actually begin etching the blank wafers with students' microscopic designs - not as part of a manufacturing or research venture - but to further education.
In an effort perhaps unique in the world, engineering students at 10 Massachusetts universities will send in their own chip designs electronically, and in a few weeks finished chips will be returned, ready to be tested.
The goal of the project, funded by the state, more than 50 electronics companies, and by universities, is to produce a ready supply of engineering graduates up tospeed with the latest semiconductor manufacturing techniques, says Edward Simon, chairman of the board of the microelectronics center.
Graduates entering the work force ``are not prepared to do the work we want them to do,'' laments Mr. Simon, vice president of Unitrode Corporation, a Massachusetts semiconductor manufacturer. ``We may spend a whole year basically training them,'' he says.
Richard Gold, the center's executive director says the program is aimed at ``supporting education, as opposed to doing primarily process research.''
Two-thirds of the 2,500 students who were involved in the first phase of the program last year were undergraduates, Gold says.
Undergraduate involvement in such an advanced program is unusual, according to James John, dean of the school of engineering at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. ``It will give [them] a leg up on the rest of the country,'' he says.
The start-up of the chip foundry comes at a difficult time for the state of Massachusetts and the electronics industry. State funding for many worthy projects is in jeopardy - including $1.6 million of the center's 1990 budget. Computer companies across the nation, including those in Massachusetts' Route 128 high-technology region, have been shaken by a prolonged slump.
Ironically (in light of budget cuts) the center is aimed at helping the US electronics industry surmount its significant challenge in the vital world semiconductor market. US-made semiconductors captured a 57 percent share in 1982, but just 36 percent in 1988, according to the Semiconductor Industry Association.
``There are people who make the case that we should just let the Japanese make all the semiconductors,'' Gold says.
Semiconductor chips are an essential component, ``the bottom of the food chain'' for the entire US electronics industry, Gold says. With more than 2.6 million workers, electronics is nation's largest manufacturing industry in terms of numbers employed, according to the American Electronics Association.
Mindful of the need to keep US workers abreast of rapidly changing technology and techniques, Gold foresees a growing role for the center in continuing education. In September the center begins its first such program: a series of Friday seminars on microchip design.
While the center is involved in some research projects, its primary goal is to provide the 10 partner universities with educational tools they would not otherwise be able to afford.
Facilities like the chip foundry here help the universities attract top professors. (Some universities, such as Stanford, University of California at Berkeley, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, have strong semiconductor programs on their own, he says.)
There are four basic parts to the Massachusetts Microelectronics Center program:
Computer-aided design (CAD) labs at each of the partner universities. (Chip designers now rely heavily on CAD software.)
The fabrication facility in Westborough, which begins producing prototype chips this fall based on student's designs.
Labs at each university for testing student-designed prototypes.
Processing labs at five of the universities, where students learn various steps in semiconductor fabrication.
The center was started in 1983 with $20 million in state funding. Businesses have donated $30 million worth of equipment and cash.
``It's been very much of an industry-driven idea,'' says Thomas Hubbard, deputy director of the governor's office of economic development. A large chunk of the center's operating budget comes from business and universities.
But half of the $3.2 million budgeted by the state for the center in 1990 is in jeopardy. Mr. Hubbard says he believes it is unlikely that $1.6 million ``frozen'' recently by Gov. Michael Dukakis will be released. Hubbard says his office is looking for other ways to provide funding.