EE Evolution

Atlanta, GA

(This article was written by Tom Zind and originally appeared in the November 2014 issue of Electrical Construction & Maintenance Magazine.)

A decade ago, Erhan Kudeki, Ph.D, then a 20-year member of the electrical engineering (EE) faculty at the University of Illinois, looked on as student interest in one of the nation’s premier EE programs softened.

“In 2004, 2005, and 2006, our enrollments were hurting,” says Kudeki, professor of electrical and computer engineering and now the department’s associate head for undergraduate affairs. “Basically, there was a scare of outsourcing in the minds of parents. Computer science and electrical/computer engineering were not all that popular. Parents were sending their kids into things like mechanical and aerospace.”

Those fears of EE jobs migrating overseas proved baseless, and by 2007, EE enrollment was heading back up. Today, the program is flourishing.

“There’s a huge demand now on anything related to computing and electrical engineering,” Kudeki says. “The numbers we have now are larger than ever. It’s a terrific problem to have.”

The campus at Champaign-Urbana isn’t alone. Students are surging into other EE programs across the country, lured by the prospect of a big payoff in good jobs and the chance to be in one of engineering’s most dynamic and versatile specialties.

In 2013, full-time undergraduate enrollment in EE surged by almost 6,000 over the previous year, hitting 91,336, according to statistics from the American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE). That marked the largest number of enrollees since 2004 — and 25% more than the 2007 low-water mark.

More EE degrees are also being awarded. ASEE data show 10,662 undergraduate EE degrees were earned in 2013. That’s the highest number in 10 years and 6% more than in 2012. Another 2,518 degrees classified as electrical/computer engineering (E/CE) were awarded as well. On top of that, amazingly, more than 10,000 master’s degrees were obtained in 2013 in both EE and E/CE.

More to know

The recovery of student interest in pursuing an EE degree partly reflects the growing stature of the discipline and its value in the marketplace. Even during a perceived downtime, EE was one of the top engineering specialties and remains so today. But its popularity translates to a host of challenges for college EE programs. If growth trends persist, greater selectivity may come into play. Programs may also need to invest in more instructional resources. And all of that may take place amidst the ceaseless struggle of how best to prepare students for the real world.

Noting that “electrical engineering has to reinvent itself every 10 to 20 years,” Kudeki emphasizes the importance of carefully crafted curriculum design, course timing, and teaching methodologies.

“We have to be more efficient in teaching electrical engineering because there’s so much more to teach,” he says. “It’s a question of how we best deliver the larger amount of knowledge we have.”

The Illinois program keys on early undergraduate exposure to core EE classes and flexibility in course selection and specialization in the junior and senior years. Incorporating extensive lab components and coursework that is both broad and deep, program design aims to both weed out weak prospects early on and keep survivors engaged and challenged. On that score, it’s succeeded, Kudeki says; three out of four entering freshmen end up earning an EE degree.

Keeping students on track in an ever-demanding discipline requires more innovative teaching techniques. More EE programs are responding by shaking up how subjects are taught, employing technology-aided instruction tools and different teaching methodologies. Bridging the gap between theory and practical applications is the goal.

Turning education inside out

Digitally enabled devices are becoming central to a more hands-on approach to instruction in EE programs like that at the Georgia Institute of Technology. The Atlanta institution’s School of Electrical and Computer Engineering has been a leader in incorporating more technology-enabled devices and tools into instruction, allowing students to better understand electrical fundamentals through experience.

“Our approach is driven by the knowledge that everyone feels the need to integrate hands-on learning, the more practical side of electrical and computer engineering theory that’s taught in class,” says the school’s Dr. Bonnie Ferri, associate chair for undergraduate affairs and professor in systems and controls. “Now that the technology has moved forward, everyone is just embracing that.”

Connecting devices like Digilent, Inc.’s Analog Discovery and National Instruments’ MyDAQ with a laptop, Ferri says, students interact with oscilloscopes, function generators, dynamic spectrum analyzers, embedded microcontrollers, logic analyzers, and a host of other tools that animate EE concepts. Integral to the learning process, their beauty lies in anywhere/anytime accessibility, she says.

Such tools help form the spear of efforts to shake up the very nature of the EE instructional process. Ferri and other EE educators note the emerging trend of “flipping classes,” whereby instructors have students view lectures digitally, opening up precious classroom time for higher-value engagement.

In a traditional lecture format, she explains, “Class time kind of runs out when they’re getting to the more interesting things, leaving students to deal with applications or difficult problems on their own after class.” But in a flipped class, students come in more prepared to tackle them. “Every Friday in my circuits class, we have ‘bring your devices,’ and we devote that time to working with them.”

Showing the big picture

While the “how” of teaching EE is evolving, so is the “what.” Exposure to the core fundamentals is a given, although there’s more focus on timing and sequencing to ensure adequate retention and timely deployment of key concepts. But as EE’s scope expands, programs are offering more options on classes and areas of emphasis.

A 2013 graduate of the Georgia Tech program, Layla Marshall was drawn to the study of EE because of its versatility. She zeroed in on control systems and audio engineering in her studies, and now works as a contract hardware engineer for Siemens Industry, Inc., in Johnson City, Tenn. Marshall remains attracted to the audio/acoustics field and is mulling a master’s level study of that or mechanical engineering.

“I struggled at first to pick a major, but the more I learned about electrical engineering and how broad it is — and the number of areas you can pursue with a degree — the more I was drawn to it,” she says.

The EE program at Tufts University in Medford, Mass., is structured around that perception. Dr. Karen Panetta, associate dean for undergraduate affairs and professor of electrical and computer engineering, says students should be able to understand EE’s many practical applications and close relationship to other engineering specialties — from mechanical to design to biomedical.

“Programs are introducing students to a variety of what I’ll call ‘interdisciplinary applications’ of electrical engineering,” she says. “We recognize now that there’s no such thing as a pure electrical engineer in a sense.”

Another 2013 Georgia Tech EE graduate, Adam Kitain, offers proof. After graduation, Kitain found his way into a job as an analytics and database strategy consultant for IBM. An internship with now-defunct Research In Motion (RIM) convinced him that his interests lay more in the business development side of technology than the technology itself. While completing his EE degree, he took classes in the Georgia Tech business school and earned a certificate in finance.

“It was more interesting to me to understand why RIM was losing market share than ‘how can I help develop a more efficient RF antenna?’” he says.

Real-world emphasis

Tomorrow’s EEs are also learning the practical skills they’ll need to perform their jobs. One is programming, which is not just for EEs with a computer engineering focus anymore; it’s increasingly essential in a world where embedded controls and computer simulation are commonplace.

“It’s very rare you’re going to find an electrical engineer who doesn’t know how to program,” says Panetta. “We have to simulate everything before we build anything, and simulation is coding.”

At the other end of the skill-building spectrum, EE programs are hitting the softer notes harder. As the practice of engineering becomes ever more people-focused and team-driven, educators are more pressured to emphasize real-world interpersonal and communication skills alongside the technical. And that seems to be taking place earlier in the educational process now, says Colleen Layman, president-elect of Society of Women Engineers and an EE degree holder.

“Two decades ago, it wasn’t until senior year that you really got to start putting things you learned together and focus on teamwork,” says Layman, an associate vice president at HDR, Inc., Omaha. “I’m glad to see that EE education has changed to better reflect how EEs work in the real world.”

In the University of Illinois program, collaborative concepts are emphasized at the earliest stages. Coursework from introductory stages on through to upper-level classes is imbued with the message that “engineers work together, and engineering is all about teamwork,” Kudeki says.

And it becomes essential to senior-year Capstone Design projects that showcase a student’s practical knowledge attainment relative to a chosen specialty or passion.

“The Capstone project has many elements in it that address professionalism, ethics, and being able to communicate,” Kudeki explains. “It’s an advanced composition course as much as it is a design course. Students have to write their initial proposal and various intermediate reports, and the semester ends with a final report as well as presentation in front of their peers.”

The interdisciplinary curriculum focus at Tufts is having the effect of producing more complete graduates, Panetta says. When they understand that EE is not practiced in isolation, they’re honing the people skills needed in today’s engineering workplace.

A realistic scenario today, Panetta says, is one where a prospective employer says, “It’s great you’ve got this kid who can do all the circuit theory, but I really need someone who’s going to be able to go out to my clients who have no technical expertise, be able to redact exactly what they need, and communicate it back to them without them being scared off by it.”

Degree as door-opener

Still, companies hiring newly minted EEs know as they always have that an EE degree is an essential starting point. Even as more programs stress the softer skills, graduates’ grasp of basic technical knowledge of the field is a given. Even in a complex and rapidly changing field, that’s a sufficient springboard to begin what amounts to the next phase of the educational process: on-the-job training.

Recruiters at Peter Basso Associates, Inc., a Troy, Mich., consulting engineering and building design firm, are finding today’s EE graduates generally well-prepared to step into jobs that demand a firm grasp of both core engineering principles and strong interpersonal communication skills. From there, says one of the firm’s principals, Terry Cleis, it’s about acquainting new hires with Basso’s culture.

“The value of an engineering degree is the same as it’s always been — it basically teaches you how to think and how to logically plod your way through problems,” he says. “It’s a process of finding people who have the basic skill set and an eagerness to learn. Intelligent people is what we want.”

Likewise, Sparling, a consulting and electrical engineering firm in Lynnwood, Wash., courts graduates with not only the requisite technical grounding, but also a comfort level with working collaboratively. Degreed EEs are a natural fit, given Sparling’s broad menu of electrical services for the built environment. But Sparling also considers computer, mechanical, design, and audio engineering majors — even physics majors — because its work is hard to pigeonhole.

“We’re not engineers in cubicles here,” says Karl Pihl, a company principal. “Written and verbal communications skills are very important since we’re working with architects, owners, and other engineers. We need to be able to speak in layman and technical terms at the right time for the right audience.”

Lacking those skills, Sparling has found, even top-notch candidates can wash out. A recent new-grad hire came in flashing a 3.9 GPA and letters of recommendation from professors. That wasn’t enough.

“We took all of that information at face value, but we found out real quick that some of the ‘meat’ in terms of working in groups and on projects was very much missing from this individual’s portfolio,” says another Principal Michael Newbury.

Vetting grads

That experience led to some changes in how Sparling evaluates new graduates. Now, Pihl says, they’re challenging candidates more in interviews to demonstrate a teamwork mentality and reveal how they think. The applicant’s degree, from a university’s satellite program, also demonstrated that not all EE degrees are equal.

“Maybe it’s a matter of faculty, staff, research resources, and facilities, but it seems to us like there’s some work to do to get those satellite programs up to snuff relative to their main campuses,” Pihl says.

Internship and co-op programs help reduce such hiring misfires, and that common industry practice has continued to grow. A tighter labor market, more graduates, engineering specialization, and cutthroat competition for business have likely boosted reliance on “test drives” to vet prospective talent.

Basso routinely has co-op students on staff — about half of whom come onboard, Cleis says. Sparling quickly inserts most of its interns into “real paying projects with real deadlines,” Pihl says, as a way to size them up and expose them to the nuances of the work they’d be performing.

That’s also an important consideration for S-E-A, Ltd., a Columbus, Ohio, forensic engineering firm. One of its electrical engineers, Sam Sudler, says students it brings on as interns benefit from early exposure to a very specialized application of what’s taught in school. They’re being evaluated, he says, for the ability to “use scientific methods to collect information, analyze it, and develop hypotheses.”

Preparation for a world in which new technological frontiers are constantly opening and communication and collaboration are essential will be academia’s call to action in educating tomorrow’s electrical engineers. As more students pursue EE degrees, curricula will have to continue adapting to ensure that candidates are getting both the fundamental and specialized knowledge and basic skills that will translate to the marketplace. Engineering educators may be uniquely qualified to do that.

“As engineers we’re innovators,” Ferri says. “We like to think of ourselves in EE or CE as ‘the magic makers.’ We have to think of new ideas and better ways of doing things.”

Additional Photos

Bonnie Ferri works with students on an in-class exercise.

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Last revised August 1, 2017