Since the invention of the transistor 73 years ago, semiconductor technology has improved at an exponential rate following the self-fulfilling prophecy of Moore’s Law. Improvements in semiconductor technology have in turn enabled remarkable improvements in communication and information technology, leading to major changes in the way people communicate, compute, acquire and use information, and seek entertainment.
This paper describes a First-Year Seminar taught in 2017 and 2019 in which students from a range of different majors explore the history and societal impact of semiconductor and related technologies throughout the semiconductor era. The goals of the seminar are to provide students with a qualitative understanding of how semiconductors are designed and manufactured, an appreciation for how the technology has evolved and enabled news products and services, an awareness of the physical and economic factors that suggest an end to exponential improvement, and a perspective on how the end of exponential improvement might further impact society. Students can the use this perspective to make informed decisions about semiconductor and related technologies and to participate in the broader conversation about the technological choices faced by society.
The course is structured as a historical survey that begins with precursor technologies that motivated the development of semiconductors, followed by the invention of the transistor and the integrated circuit, and the ongoing symbiotic relationship between semiconductors and communication and information technology that led to a “virtuous cycle” of exponential improvement. Students engage in reading and discussion along with short lectures describing the design and manufacture of semiconductors. Hands-on experiences involving coding and integrated circuit design are used to strengthen student understanding of basic concepts. Student writing assignments include reflections about their personal history experiencing technological improvements, reactions to the hands-on experiences, and a book report in which they explore one particular aspect of semiconductor technology and its societal impacts.
Assessment of student writing assignments showed that students gained a qualitative understanding of semiconductor design and manufacturing and an appreciation for the changes brought about by advances in semiconductor technology and its applications. Future refinements to the course will include broadening coverage of impacts of semiconductors in the present day including environmental concerns, privacy/surveillance issues, and job losses due to automation
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