Over the last few decades the use of wireless devices such as cell phones, car keys, and GPS systems has increased enormously. All these devices transmit and receive data at high speed through antennas. "Antennas are where the bottle neck is in all these communication technologies, and with a better antenna you can transmit more data," says Stefano Maci of the Department of Information Engineering at the University of Siena in Italy. This is why students at technical universities and engineering departments of universities need courses in the theory and application of antennas.
© Fotolia, 2012
But because of their highly specialised nature, the courses were not cost effective. "At each university there were few PhD students interested in or who have the background to follow an advanced antenna course."Also, software technology in the engineering field squeezed out other areas, and this got us into trouble," explains Maci.
The solution was to simply create a geographically-distributed post-graduate school on antennas and their applications, says Maci. "We found that it´s better to prepare our PhD students by bringing the best teachers together at the best facilities in Europe and attracting students from all over the world."
This idea resulted in the creation of the European School of Antennas (ESoA) in 2004. The school was part of the "Antenna Centre of Excellence" initiative of the 6th Framework Research Programme of the European Union (EU). It was an immediate success: 11 courses in the first year attracted 244 participants.
At the beginning this initiative proved costly because of the travel involved, and there were fears that the project would not survive beyond the funding period by the EU, recalls Maci, who is the coordinator of ESoA. "Actually, things turned out very differently," he says. "Flights are now very cheap, and researchers like to teach at an international level, and they are financially supported by their own institutes."
The school was funded by the EU in the form of study grants awarded to the participating students. From 2007 to 2009 the school received supplemental support from the Marie Curie Actions (MCAs), with 140 students receiving grants over that period. Also, for the supporting institutes, now numbering 33, this arrangement is interesting because they can send their students to the ESoA and don't have the expense of setting up a course themselves. Currently, the school is supported by registration fees and grants from research networks that are part of the current 7th Framework Research Programme and of the European Science Foundation.
The school now offers 32 different courses taught by 150 professors. Courses range from the theory of electromagnetism, computational models, and wave propagation to all antenna topologies and practical applications in wireless systems, including the recently emerging metamaterials and terahertz technology. The courses are for graduate students, but researchers from industry who already have a PhD are also attracted. The courses include lectures, practical work and exercises, and round-table discussions of important papers pertaining to a specific course. Students come mainly, but not only, from the participating institutions. "30 percent of our students are from non- European countries, from China and the United States, for example." says Maci.
The benefits for the students are important. The accreditation, obtained after an exam at the end of the 5-day course gives the students more mobility, opening doors to research positions at universities and jobs in industry. Maci reports that he is asked by various companies in the industry for lists of participants on specific courses. "They catch the best talent, and make offers to the students" says Maci. But industry is not only interested in hiring staff, they are also interested in the courses themselves. In some of the courses dealing with antenna applications, 25 percent of the participants are working engineers, reports Maci. Maci expects that with time the school will be an economic asset for the European communications industry, promoting innovation. "In perhaps ten years we will see a great improvement in research and technology in this industry."