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The cutting edge of electronics technology has come to Howard County in the form of a unique classroom/laboratory facility started by Johns Hopkins' engineering school.

Like programs offered at other institutions, Dorsey Center on Route 176 offers working engineers a chance to learn the newest theories in the design of microwave chips.

But unlike other microwave programs, students there also have a chance to apply those theories by following through. They design and test chips with the latest computer-aided design software and testing equipment.

"We have had companies tell us, 'You have done something in 14 weeks that we have had two engineers working on for a year,' " said Lee Edwards, chairman of the electrical engineering program of Hopkins' Whiting School of Engineering.

The idea to combine cutting-edge theory with practice sparked the interest of a host of high-tech companies and research agencies from coast to coast -- about a dozen of which donated or lent more than $1 million of equipment to make the center possible, Edwards said.

Some businessmen involved in the program believe it could attract more companies to Howard County's high-tech business community.

Scientists believe microwave chips are the next step in electronic evolution after silicon chips.

The chips, made of galium-arsenide rather than silicon, have spawned the recent boom in the use of cellular telephones. They hold the promise of revolutionizing communications, navigation and sensor systems, such as radar, said Edwards.

"Microwave chips have made cellular telephones smaller, lighter, cheaper and consequently more available to the general public," he said. Besides enabling advances in radar and satellite communications, the chips also are likely to make personal computers 30 times faster, he said.

"With this technology, you could build a small navigation system in your car that could communicate with a satellite that would tell you where you are," said Edwards.

The center's 379 students, most of whom are working toward master of science degrees in electrical engineering or computer science, will complete the center's first semester this week.

"It's one of the very few graduate engineering programs that allows students to not only handle theoretical studies of microwave engineering, but also to make measurements and compare results" with their calculations, said David A. Breville, vice president and general manager of Wiltron Mid-Atlantic Sales Co. in Columbia's Rivers Corporate Park.

Wiltron, which sells high-tech equipment manufactured at its California headquarters, has loaned the Dorsey Center chip-testing equipment called a vector network analyzer, which lists for about $125,000, Breville said.

One of the largest supporters of the microwave laboratory is EEsof Inc.

of California, whose contributions, including computer-aided design software and CAD terminals, are valued at more than $1 million, Edwards said.

The center's total corporate sponsorship, which Hopkins officials deemed invaluable but refused to disclose, is repaid with training in the latest microwave technology for engineers.

Among the companies with engineers participating is Columbia's Bendix Field Engineering, which, among other things, provides support for space shuttle missions and federal entities such the National Security Agency at Fort Meade.

In addition, "it gives the companies a ground-floor opportunity to introduce their equipment to buyers of the future," said Craig R. Moore, a senior engineer at Hopkins' Applied Physics Laboratory south of Columbia.

Moore, a Columbia resident, said that the young engineers working toward their masters' degrees today may someday be deciding what equipment their companies will buy.

The school stipulates that any technology developed there must remain in the public domain, and therefore cannot be copyrighted or patented.

The new microwave engineering design center and laboratory would not have been possible without the help of companies like Wiltron and giants such as Westinghouse and Hewlett-Packard and government research institutions such as the Army's Harry Diamond Laboratories in Adelphi, Edwards said.

Although Whiting School officials declined to give the center's start-up cost or corporate sponsorship, school spokeswoman Debbie Reass said the new center was made possible in part by a discount in the rent offered by Dorsey Business Center owner Douglas H. Legum.

While high-tech companies already located in Howard County are encouraged by the new center, Breville said, "I think some companies would be inclined to move into Howard County because of the center."

Steven D. Sass, founding chairman of the county Chamber of Commerce High Technology Council and now a chamber board member, welcomed the center's move.

"That's one of the oft-cited needs of the technology community, for additional education in technology areas," he said.

The center, originally based at the Parkway Industrial Center II in Anne Arundel County, started as an extension center for engineering classes that lacked room at APL, Edwards said.

But with "exponential" growth in the microwave engineering field, and a need for more space in the computer science, applied physics and applied mathematics areas, school officials decided to move from the 4,000 square foot facility into the 11,000 square foot space in the Dorsey Center.

The center opened June 1 for summer sessions and its first regular semester began Sept. 6. Its first spring semester begins Jan. 22.

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