What should colleges be teaching EE’s?

Commentary on the curriculum for electronic engineers.

I recently attended a high tech educational conference where a popular topic was what to teach those in engineering and technology programs.  That is always a hot topic and usually results in a major debate but with no outcome, resolution or change.  So the status quo continues. Business as usual for academia. 

I used to teach in academia so I am painfully aware of the continuous big disconnect between what is being taught versus the real world needs.  There seems to be a permanent skew or at best a lag between industry needs and academia.  And frankly I cannot think of a way to change that given the extreme rigidness of the institutions, the faculty and their accrediting bodies.  If you think change is difficult in industry, just take a look at what it takes to change the curriculum or any course content at a college or university.  Brutal.

Anyway, an always interesting topic is what new courses should be added.  And the big debate about what to take out if anything new is added.  Most curricula are topped out at a maximum number of semester hours and departments cannot go over that limit without materially extending the program beyond the traditional four years, not to mention making the program even harder and more expensive for students already in overload.  So adding any new course forces you to remove another.

I heard one professor admit that they recently dropped the requirement of statics and dynamics courses in EE programs.  These topics have traditionally been required of all engineering majors.  They make sense for mechanical, civil, and architectural engineering but not so much for EEs.  Have you ever used your statics and dynamics knowledge in your EE work?  Me neither. The college did kept the requirement for thermodynamics which is generally applicable for most EEs.  The school then decided to add more software and programming courses in place of statics and dynamics.  An interesting choice and probably on target.

EE is a discipline that is software intensive these days so software does make sense.  The follow on question concern is what to teach.  Some teach Java, others Matlab or other math and simulation software.   An introduction to EDA is part of some programs.  My informal survey of languages taught reveals no one software dominates.  It is all over the place and language selection is almost at the whim of the professors teaching the courses rather than any survey of what industry needs or uses.  C (& C++) is usually taught along with any embedded controller design course, as it should.

Another debate that is continuously in play is teaching just the fundamentals versus adding more modern practical technology courses.  Some in the “just fundamentals” camp say it is not the job of the college to teach the latest practices.  The goal is to build a base that becomes the foundation for future OJT or graduate education.  Fundamentals are great as any EE will tell you but I feel that it is almost criminal to turn a graduate loose in industry without some practical look at real world technology.  Maybe there is a way to integrate examples of modern practice and technology into existing fundamentals courses, if the professors know what to teach.

Another question is what other topics should be taught?  Circuit theory courses still dominate early years in the program but shouldn’t other fundamentals be added.  Communications is an example.  Wireless and networking are a part of just about all electronic products and applications today.  Communications should be a basic electronics introductory course in all curricula. 

Another is test and measurement.  A general introduction to modern test instruments and how to make common measurements is critical knowledge.  It is what engineers do these days.  I have actually met graduates who could not use a scope but could do complex math in circuit analysis.  And what about topics such as PCB design, video, DSP, and FPGAs.  Is the emphasis wrong in EE programs?  I have to wonder if the colleges and universities really know what is needed.  I hope they talk to industry but I sensed at this conference that many do not.  I have often thought I should make up a list of key things they don’t teach in school and send it to academia.  I am sure most of you have your own list.

Finally, I also got the impression that academia does not embrace the idea of lifelong learning.  For example, how to professors get continuing education?  Where does it come from and who pays?  These days professors are big users of the Internet as a learning source as are most practicing engineers.  But hopefully, professors are also reading the magazines, going to the conferences and taking the many webinars that are so plentiful today.  I worry that they are not.

Academia is an island that seems separate from the industry that employs its graduates.  Maybe I am wrong about this but the evidence seems to say otherwise.  On the other hand maybe it is industry’s fault for not speaking up about their specific needs.  Or has industry become so diverse and specialized that the current “generic” graduates no long fit the jobs?  No wonder colleges do not know what to teach.

Discuss this Blog Entry 37

on Jul 24, 2013

The problem with academia is that they don't embrace anything except tenure. All of the yelling and screaming at UT Austin is a good example of how academia does not respond to the owners of the university. The governor is appointing regents who want to make the university a better place for undergraduate education and the push back is disappointing. Too many professors and the alumni seem to think they own the school rather than the taxpayers of the state. Yes, you and I are part owners of the university! I don't think I get very much for my money.
That said, I have an intern (graduate level) this summer from UT that is actually quite accomplished. I would say he is pretty rare though, since I usually count on 6 to 9 months to get a new graduate up to speed as a real engineer.

on Jul 24, 2013

I think we really need to look at how other disciplines do it.

For all the gnashing of teeth and complaints about costs, I think that Medicine does a far better job of bringing new technologies into the practice. There is far more emphasis on internships and residency to prepare new doctors and they are far longer than the 3-4 months that is common in E.E.

One of the real failures of EE programs, generally, is continuing education. I work in a University (non-teaching) and trying to find a class that does not require admission as a graduate student (I am not talking about "sitting in, which I can do, but most of my peers cannot).

Jim Wagner
Oregon Research Electronics & Oregon State University

on Jul 28, 2013

Most Medical Schools (I'm from UW) accept any 4 yr undergraduate degree (my friend took pre-Med coursework but recieved a BA in German). "Medicine" is an 4+ year Graduate School evuivalent (Classwork plus several years of residency). The UW did not have an undergraduate Bioengineering degree and Chem Engr BS was 5+ years (minimum if some courses taken concurrently).

on Jul 24, 2013

To me the question goes to the function of a university education. If we expect the BSEE to be a four year technician certificate, then the university should emphasize current technology and tools. I recently retired after a 46 year career as an EE, and I can assure you that the technology and tools prevalent during my period at university are long since consigned to the scrap heap. In my most recent company before retiring, I was working with high speed digital circuits, FPGAs, and analog circuits for satellite applications. Had I only depended on the tools and technologies used in my college years, I would have been cashiered long ago. The BSEE course of study emphasized the fundamentals, which have not changed over my career, as well as ways to analyze new technologies and tools. Additionally, we were "forced" to take non-technical electives that provided a more rounded background. Haven't there been complaints about the lack of business knowledge in engineering graduates? Haven't there been similar complaints about culturally deficient engineering graduates?

Over my career, I had budget responsibility for some projects, dealt with marketing and sales to develop product specifications, and dealt with customers to better understand their needs. I wrote many proposals, which required a certain facility with written communication.

So after this rambling rant, the question comes down to what does industry expect from a BSEE graduate? If industry simply wants an employee who can use the company tool set to produce something right out of the gate, then a current tool/technology focus is the way to go. The question then becomes which tool set and which technology should be emphasized? There are more than one technology and more than one tool set in wide usage currently. Perhaps the industry really just wants an engineer that can come in, use the current tools and technology for a few years, to be replaced with another new graduate who is fluent in the then new tools and technology.

on Jul 24, 2013

The traditional university model will likely undergo major changes in the coming decade, so I'll answer the question, "What knowledge and skills should EEs acquire?"

Based on what I was taught 20-30 years ago vs. what I find useful now, I'm in the fundamentals camp. Even though technology advances rapidly, core mathematical and physical concepts don't. Put another way, the math and physics that underlie a particular area of engineering specialization tend to hold their value.

Perhaps there should be a "hand-off" of sorts for engineers, sort of like what residency is for med school students. After 2-3 years of establishing a solid foundation of knowledge, engineering undergrads could be hired by companies where they would complete the transition to full engineers over the next 1-2 years. They would be exposed to the current state of the art in their chosen field, the companies would pay them commensurate with their experience (more than interns, but not as much as regular engineers), and they would gain real-world experience instead of existing in the bubble of academia.

on Jul 24, 2013

There is unfortunately some degree of mistrust and misunderstanding between academia and industry, and it flows both ways. This is where that "compromise" thing might come in handy...

I'm an EE, and I USE both statics and dynamics. Sometimes I only use them qualitatively, but they are important. At my school, there was an option to take a combined class that covered both statics and dynamics, compressed together, for non-ME/non-CE majors. Even for bolted-down things that don't move (on purpose, that is), statics is important...

on Jul 24, 2013

I agree with Mike P. that fundamentals are crucial. One observation: in the '60's people going into the sciences, and not just electrical engineering, frequently had hands-on experience as hobbyists and tinkerers. That is rather rare today. I think it gave us a great advantage, as we could see what the motivation was to understanding at a deeper level how things worked.

The other thing that has had a devastating effect I think was the overselling of digital. Now, it was for a time possible for a BS graduate to actually do useful work soon after leaving school having gotten the hang of the symbol domain, and he or she didn't need to remember a great deal of the fundamentals, and particularly the maths. But this also left them ill-equipped for any sort of comprehensive system design. In a large-enough organization this might not be such a terrible disadvantage.

Another point is that the field is so vast now that it is perhaps naive to suppose that one should be ready to do useful work upon graduation. And an advanced degree, particularly the PhD, will often lead to a hyperspecialization of benefit to but a few.

Brad Wood

on Jul 24, 2013

I've been in the industry for about 6 years now, started as a electrical test engineer and worked myself up to an electrical design engineer. I still remember the huge gap I had to climb to reach the level of knowledge that my senior peers have today. I was so mad, frustrated, and confused as to how academia has cheated me the 5 years I spent doing, to summarize, mathematical analysis on circuit diagrams. Not until I took a course in Mechatronics did I finally understand why we need RC circuits, or temperature-compensated circuits, etc. It all came together for me with that extra course I decided to take. In fact, Mechatronics is not part of the EE curricula which absolutely baffles me today. Yes, the mathematical analysis was a great foundation, but i never once touched solder gun until I had to create my senior project in my last semester! There is something absolutely wrong with the system. As I recall, in the EE labs that were associated with the lecture courses, we had to follow specific lab manual procedures, either written by the lab instructor who didn't speak intelligible English or a student helping the professor. I believe one way to progress students in learning is to throw out all the lab manuals and have a professor actually sit down and create labs that not only aline with the course lesson for that week, but allows a student to activate the basic principles of engineering each and every week - Research, design, test, and verify. I consider todays lab manuals as handicaps or training wheels that limits a students ability to make those critical connections between what they learn in books to how and why they would apply them in the real world. I do agree, we definitely need more software orientated courses, and most importantly, EDA tool courses. At least one course in making a Printed Circuit Board (PCB). These are fundtmental skills that students need to get jobs. I can honesty say that learned more practical engineering skills using Google than my college courses gave me.

on Jul 24, 2013

I have been working in the industry for nearly 15 years. The advice I give to any undergraduate is to learn the FUNDAMENTALS really, really well. My mentor always broke down any issues to the fundamentals and then worked back to the problem. Fundamentals to me would be: what is a Capacitor used for? How is it built and why are some good and bad for each application. You have to start somewhere. Also good Lab skills. I was lucky and learned how to use the basics when I was in high school. When I was a graduate student teaching junior level lab classes, I was amazed at how many students didn't know how to use an oscilloscope or solder.

I felt that at my graduate school, there was a good tie to industry - most of my professors were either consultants in the industry or were active engineers on the side. I think the best way to encourage this is to have active partnerships between companies and universities.

My last suggestion would be to introduce a design course at the Junior and senior levels. Isn't this really what a good engineering students want to do anyway? BUILD things. Lets get them some practice early.

on Jul 24, 2013

"Finally, I also got the impression that academia does not embrace the idea of lifelong learning. "

You're kidding, right? A commitment to lifelong learning has been all the rage in academia for the past several years, certainly that's the case in the community colleges and junior colleges with which I'm familiar. Also, I'm on two industrial advisory committees for local colleges. They're actively looking for input from local industry. Maybe it's different at the big engineering schools, I don't know. If so, they need to get a clue from the CCs.

Regarding fundamentals vs. latest toolset, that's a false dichotomy. You can have both. My observation over the years is that the engineering technology degree (BT or BS in EET, which seems to be looked down upon by some EEs) was an answer to newly minted EEs not having enough practical working knowledge. If I owned my own business today and needed some design engineers, I'd look for someone with an Associates degree in Electrical Engineering Tech and a BSEE or a BSEET. If they have an EET degree I know they'll know their way around a lab.

on Jul 24, 2013

+1 for BSEET's and getting our "rap" to be taken seriously.

on Jul 24, 2013

Are you kidding? I can't recall how many potential EE candidates I have interviewed over the years, some fresh out of school, others years into their careers that can't identify a BJT NPN transistor on a white board much less explain how to bias it on! Cant draw a simple FET switch biased on... Cant show me how to hook up an opamp as a buffer follower... The list goes on and on. The last two most recent embarrassing moments was an "RF" engineer with their masters degree in hand and after more than five years of practice doesn't know what an S-Parameter is. The last was a PhD EE graduate that seemed to have a combination of all of the above! So... What are they teaching in school these days?

on Jul 24, 2013

I have been out of school for 8 years now. Unlike most students I took the slow route so I am older then most. I worked full time to pay my way through school making it though junior college and then though my BSEET. I have to completely agree with jfirore. Every BSEET I've ever worked with gets a bum wrap from BESS's and companies looking for BSEE's. One thing I will vouch for, as well many colleagues I know is that BSEET’s get a bad “rap” because most of them come from for profit colleges but these manages are being forced to expand their hiring pool and employee more BSEET’s. Every one of them I know say they are starting to catch on and started hiring more BSEET's going forward. I work with more and more people through the years now with degree's from DeVry University then those that come from major universities with BSEE. Every DeVry graduate I’ve worked with in the past few years come out knowing how to use common test equipment, they can read schematics, they can breadboard, they can solder, and they usually can pick up other skills along the way without jeopardizing product development. I’m now a high level design engineer and it’s because of the hands on skills I had that allowed me to side step the engineers with theoretical (BSEE) degrees.

One thing I like to tell people is an engineering degree of any kind doesn’t mean you know how to do something. The degree means the engineer has the fundamental skills, ability, and confidence to learn how to do something and do it right and in a timely manner. You shouldn’t have to hire an entry level engineer that has knowledge on all modern technologies and practices but you should expect them to have the drive and dedication to learn it on their feet. I think every engineer could go on for hours about this discussion but to me is teach them the basics. If they are a good engineer they will learn the rest OJT from the senior staff or on their own quickly. If they don’t weed them out of the pool.

on Jul 24, 2013

Engineering is about problem solving, particularly design which is problem solving with a goal. Fundamentals are obviously required, but so is the experience of problem solving. My introduction to engineering education taught me the Iron Law: if you did not do the homework, which was about solving problems, you did not pass the exams, however well you read the chapter.

Digital and software are a diversion. Both are tools for solving problems, such as the design of machinery (physical or virtual) to do something useful. They are only a part of the solution. They will both fade back to an appropriate part of the engineering design tool kit as the technology stabilizes. At the start of the computer revolution, simple hardware and simple software could do wonders. Now neither are simple, and silicon speed limits have been reached. (There is no 4 GHz Pentium to this day.) More performance and new problems now look to new materials, sensors and actuators.

If you do not teach engineers how to design and grade them on their ability to do design, you have not taught engineering. Full stop. This is an observation from 49 years as a professional engineer.

on Jul 25, 2013

I must agree! FULL STOP! If you didn't get the basics and can't keep the basics in the forefront of your notepad, then you won't make a very good engineer! BSEET's are great if you want to hire someone to mold. I love em! In some cases that's a very appropriate tact considering that apprenticeships died in this country over two decade ago, maybe three or more depending. But, there's no excuse for trying to interview as a full fledged EE with experience if you can't handle simple circuit theory. Especially if you've been at it for a spell. I've herd a lot of excuses in my day in 30 years of doing this. The prevailing one is, "Oh I don't do that kind of engineering." Or, "I never learned that in school." Either you learned it and you know it or you don't. You can not be an electronics engineer if you can't design circuits or understand the basic mechanics of the science.

on Jul 24, 2013

I've seen so many circuit boards destroyed by EEs, or they create their own problems due to the lack of skills. Basic soldering/replacement of FPGAs, such as BGA, QFN, DFN, 0201 and 0402 resistors, heating the pad and the component, not just the component, the use of flux, proper cleaning, trace repair, and similar very basic skills is very lacking these days. Use of PCB layout tools and implementation of high speed routing techniques, length matching, impedance matching, kelvin connecting in layout, guard loops, layout for switching supply noise (and currents), isolation, emissions/susceptibility, and other basic PCB layout techniques is also useful- instead of throwing a schematic over the wall to the layout technicians. Real properties of real world passives (value drop of ceramics under DC bias) and other little things like that. A single term class that would encompass all those things they learn in their first two years sure would help them hit the ground with their feet running- yes they can learn it on the job, but they sure take a lot of other's time before they even get to this point- and some never do. How many times did he have to spin that board?!?!?

on Jul 24, 2013

I've seen so many circuit boards destroyed by EEs, or they create their own problems due to the lack of skills. Basic soldering/replacement of FPGAs, such as BGA, QFN, DFN, 0201 and 0402 resistors, heating the pad and the component, not just the component, the use of flux, proper cleaning, trace repair, and similar very basic skills is very lacking these days. Use of PCB layout tools and implementation of high speed routing techniques, length matching, impedance matching, kelvin connecting in layout, guard loops, layout for switching supply noise (and currents), isolation, emissions/susceptibility, and other basic PCB layout techniques is also useful- instead of throwing a schematic over the wall to the layout technicians. Real properties of real world passives (value drop of ceramics under DC bias) and other little things like that. A single term class that would encompass all those things they learn in their first two years sure would help them hit the ground with their feet running- yes they can learn it on the job, but they sure take a lot of other's time before they even get to this point- and some never do. How many times did he have to spin that board?!?!?

on Jul 24, 2013

As an EE in small companies, I have had to design sheet metal enclosures, powdered metal parts, injection molded components and motion systems. I have also been required to design electronic circuits with signals from pA to KA, uW to KW and nV to KV. I have also been required to interface with architects, mechanical engineers, particle physicists and medical doctors. (and yes I have used statics.) Honestly, this is what engineers do.
Every time I am required to do something I wasn't trained for, I give thanks that my BSEE program was broad based and general enough that I could adapt.
I realized early on, that when management has a problem, they expect you, the engineer, to fix it. It doesn't mater what your training was...just fix it.
The purpose of a BSEE education is to provide the graduate with three things:
1) a broad based fundamental understanding of the topics of engineering.
2) the ability to think and use those fundamental concepts to solve problems.
3) the ability to research and understand new technologies when the knowledge is needed to solve problems.
The idea that a fresh graduate is ready to do any kind of serious work is a dream. Most graduates require a 5 to 10 year apprenticeship before they are "skilled" engineers. Unfortunately, many companies do not want to pay for skilled engineers, they want to hire a fresh graduate to do the work of an experienced engineer. I suspect the call to specialize the BSEE program is coming from that perspective.

on Jul 29, 2013

I agree with your statement! A broad "Engineering" Education should provide the building blocks to launch an engineering career. But there is so much to learn. I have tracked down the aerospace path for so long, it would take me awhile to relearn any other avenue of being an Electrical Engineer. But what I do offer is a vast array of experience and an ability to research and find answers to problems. This is the basics which I learned in College.

on Jul 25, 2013

I think both fundamentals and skills are important. I have a MSEE and teach AAS EET students at a Community College. (I think taking out statics from an EE program is a mistake.) If I can get students up to par in two years, I know the universities can in 5 years. (My under-grad program at UofA was essentially a five year program.) I have found the secrete to teaching the fundamentals AND modern skills is to embed projects into all the classes- not just the senior design project. Ultimately, what employers want, depends upon the particular employee. They all want something different. Work closely with your local industries- which I have started to do heavily now. They will tell you want they expect. I am now J-STD-001 soldering certified and so will my students. This is the direct result of an industry advisory committee meeting. Schools should do BIG projects, to get the students interested and to force the faculty to teach useful skills, along with fundamentals. Both are extremely important. Fundamentals can be taught without so much reliance upon calculus-based math. All in moderation. Math should be used as a tool to enhance understanding, not as a tool to solve the impedance of a coax cable, because in practice this is given. Schools can go too far in waisting time going too deep in some areas (math) while ignoring others (soldering, test equipment, prototyping, experimenting). (I like math, and students should be able to solve DC and AC circuit analysis problems to a certain level. Beyond a certain level, they can use Pspice.) Michael Faraday had zero math equations in his "Electrical Researches" but was able to speculate the possible connection between light and electromagnetic waves. Sometimes the quickest way, and most accurate way to solve a problem, is build it and see if it works! This is the lost art of experimenting! Maxwell is one extreme and Edison on the other. One became famous for a set of equations, the other, famous for phonograph, stock ticker, light bulb, electric power distribution, storage batteries, vacuum tube (Edison Effect), Quadraplex Telegraph, Motion Pictures, microphone (carbon button), and more. Both men are great, but their accomplishments look much different. Both are needed and necessary... Ultimately, it is up to the individual person to decide what type of engineer they want to be. I would say it is true, the applied "Edison's" are looked down upon. But I think that is changing as technology gets more complex.

on Jul 25, 2013

I agree with Brad Wood ("bcarso") and some others about the "hands on" experience and the overselling of digital in colleges. I think an internship should required to get the degree. I've interviewed far too many clueless graduates and instead hired a passionate hobbyist and technical school grad. As just one example, I was an invited to lecture at MIT a few years back on grounding and signal interfacing in systems (my specialty, especially low-frequency and audio systems). The professor confided that "we don't teach anything about this topic" here. The result is that even experienced EEs make truly dumb mistakes that result in noisy, unreliable systems. The fundamentals never change but their relevance to real-world circuits and systems seems to have been lost ... either to math snobbery (I'm a huge Michael Faraday fan and I'll pit intuitive understanding against a page of equations any day) or to "digital" where the "technology du jour" changes almost weekly so it seems pointless to teach anything but underlying principles should be dealt with in academia. In the bigger picture, I'm in strong agreement with Mike Rowe (remember "Dirty Jobs" on TV): we are overselling the whole idea of going to college and setting up a "class" system with the perceived choices being go to college and get a big $ job or don't and work flipping burgers. We need to elevate the status of trade/technical schools in our culture ... much as they do in Germany. Such so-called "blue collar" jobs can be just as rewarding. The saddest part is that, if you're black, our culture sends the message that, for financial success, you should become either a basketball star or a drug dealer. My advice to academia is to teach the fundamentals deeply, especially analog, and make OJT/internship a requirement/co-requisite!

on Jul 25, 2013

Much of the manufacturing has moved overseas, and therfore, test, troubleshooting, product improvement (design) tend to leave also. The jobs that are available mostly are in smaller companies where the EE has to depend only on himself for everything. So the bar for what should be taught well needs raised. 1). Perhaps full acceptance into an engineering program should require skill with math including differential equations. That requires more math in high school, perhaps for all. In my opinion, math is more a skill, than an IQ test. Why should some students be cheated? 2). Students in high school should be introduced to the Schaum Outline Series of cheap paperback books on technical subjects, so they have a way to learn on their own, no matter how poor their high school is.

3). If the math was a prerequisite, there would be more time for advanced courses with practical labs on current technologies. Perhaps all engineering courses should have a weekly lab, no exception. Those advanced courses are usually reserved for grad courses, partly because it did not 'fit' into the undergrad program (if the profs are engineers, why did they not solve that problem?) and maybe also because the professors have no desire to run out of subjects for the grad programs, or they do not have enough industry experience. 4). All engineering students should be introduced to the trade magazines in their field the first day of engineering school. The main way engineers keep up after they get out of school is to read the free industry trade magazines. 5). All engineering students should be enrolled as student members of their national specific engineering society. As much as tuition costs these days, perhaps the department could cover that cost. 6). perhaps the individual engineering societies need to commission development of course materials for advanced subjects, if none are currently available for a specific specialty. 7). Perhaps the engineeering societies need to commission development of intorductory self study books for their specific field of engineering to interest high school students in that specific field of engineering, by seeing practical problems and the approach, the physics, and the mathematics involved. This would also provide high school students the motivation to get good in math, study the sciences, and realize that good grades generally indicates you learned the material.
8). Outstanding textbooks and experienced teachers can save the students losing too much sleep after midnight.
9). Perhaps acreditation of the program should require the availability(maybe not requirement) of summer internships for all students, each of the 3 summers, at wages hopefully nearly commensurate with their expected actual contribution.

on Jul 26, 2013

Teach them to write!

When I got my degrees, all the students had to do a thesis -- except the engineers. At two top universities, EEs were not required to take a single class in communication.

I tell young engineers all the time: Learn to write. You can have the best ideas but if you can't communicate them, and can't relate to the human, emotional needs of your customers, someone else's ideas will be in the product.

on Jul 28, 2013

At our School, Communications classes were for "Student Athletes", English majors, and Arts students. And it was taught accordingly. You seem to have an unrealistic view of what is taught in modern Communication classes.

on Jul 26, 2013

Wow! Thanks to all of you who responded to my “what to teach” blog. It is more of a hot topic than I thought.
We all have in our heads just what the ideal curriculum should be but in the end the jobs are just too diverse and at different depths. Any EE curriculum is going to be a compromise. One thing for sure, we need to maintain strong fundamentals as a foundation, but hopefully we will review those fundamentals occasionally to see if they are still relevant. Maybe we need to add new ones. One curriculum is never going to fit all. It is a compromise we continue to tinker with. Maybe one day we will get closer to an ideal core.
One possibility is to have two engineering degrees. One is applied engineering like that the current BS engineering technology grads get. That is practical engineering. The other is the regular BSEE with more depth and rigor for analysis and design and research and teaching.
Another thing is that the EE schools need to teach thinking. I know that is a goal of all higher education but how is it done? I am not sure the regular curriculum and the course processes do the job.
And what makes professors think they can teach? They all have the educational credentials in EE but what about knowing the process of learning, motivation, the difference between education and training, the difference between knowledge and information and so on? Teaching techniques? Where do they learn that?
Anyway, I appreciate the feedback on this critical topic. I just wish we could get the professors to read this blog, your excellent responses, and the magazine.
Best wishes,

on Jul 28, 2013

"Education" is big business. You forget that student needs come last at most Universities. Teaching ability is irrelevant compared to ability to attract funding.
Similar now, but during my stay the Univ of Washington was the 3rd highest grant funded school in the US. Funding for courses was determined by ability to support departments that "made money". Math Dept was funded by Engineering. Statics/Dynamics were taught by professors with minimal competence in attracting grants, or by Grad Students going through the motions. I doubt that your blog 'read by professors' would do any good; and University Presidents only read stuff about how to improve their Football Team. No one funds grants for teaching quality, mentoring skill, or bonuses for student success.

on Jul 28, 2013

shjacks45, so maybe we should be focusing more on the community colleges where teaching is everything and research takes a back seat? Seems to me we need both and one is not necessarily inferior/superior to the other in general.

on Jul 29, 2013

As a former graduate student of the U of W, I would agree with you to a point. My graduate advisor was one of the most skilled at being both a teacher, mentor and engineer. His way of looking at a problem taught me a lot of how I wanted to be an engineer. But on the flip side, I had a couple of classes that were taught by less enthusiastic professors/graduate students. Teaching is a skill and an art form. I have seen good teachers motivate students and launch careers, and bad teachers chase good students off to medical school.

on Jul 27, 2013

Maybe this magazine (and others like it) should start sending copies to all of the engineering and engineering technology program departments around the country as a matter of course. And maybe the technical societies should consider *free* student memberships. And in keeping with your closing observation regarding education vs. training and knowledge vs. information, someone beat you to it a few decades back:

"Information is not knowledge,
Knowledge is not wisdom,
Wisdom is not truth"

- Frank Zappa

on Jul 29, 2013

So maybe the question should be "How should a college teach good engineering skills"

on Jul 29, 2013

I have lots of respect for you as both an engineer and journalist, I hope you don't have a problem with this but big corporations are so busy stumbling over each other to offshore jobs and hire immigrants on H-1B visas that it doesn't matter WHAT we teach students, half of them either won't find jobs being offered at all or they won't be at wages they can live and raise a family on. I realize it's "just in your nature to care" about issues like curricula but I had a decent career despite having gone to a school that was really looking at their entire engineering program as an intake port for future Nobel-winning particle physicists, and if I hadn't been committed to learning everything I could about what companies want before, during AND after my "highly irrelevant" education (well, all but for the prestige of the sheepskin itself) I would never have had a job at all. It seems to me that worrying about curricula in the current situation is a lot like deciding "how many" progressively more demanding semesters in quantum mechanics courses are "necessary" to take before awarding a BSEE (believe it or not their answer was 3!). It looks as if companies have given up caring how an applicant is prepared so long as they don't have to pay US-style wages and so long as they can pick from the best-prepared in the world to work at whatever they feel they have to pay. I'm not trying to turn this into another rehash of "visa wars", and of anyone I ought to know how pointless THAT discussion is since ALL US citizens have been sold out big-time by BOTH political parties and ALL the major DC think tanks, I just like to put in a little "reminder" now and then that although we engineers don't appear to have an active political voice, we ARE listening and are VERY concerned.

on Jul 30, 2013

I started with an Associates Degree in Electronics and then went on to get a full BSEE.

What I missed: (what wasn't taught at the BSEE level)
1) Thermodynamics (it was replaced with a depth in humanities because nobody was getting out in less than 5 years)
2) The reasons why there are many types of resistors and capacitors and when to use them.
3) Any sort of manufacturing processes and why they are EXTREMELY important.
4) Any sort of configuration management.
5) Cost/Time/ estimations for big programs (only recently found out this is part of becoming an Eagle Scout)
6) Soldering chemistry (basic chem taught nothing specific about soldering of any kind)
a) What happens when the Europeans decide to take the lead out of your solder
7) Environmental factors in design - shock, vibe, thermal
8) What a requirements spec looks like and how to read it
9) At least a 2 credit course in Excel, Word and PowerPoint
10) Basic EMI techniques in board layouts/cable runs (yes, I did Maxwell equations, but never actually applied them)
11) The entire manufacturing process from upper level requirement to sold off product - (this could be an entire course)
a) upper level requirement
b) requirements decomposition
c) arguing with the customer over the requirements
d) trade studies
e) review of requirements
f) sign off of requirements (and throw over the wall to engineering)
g) engineering top level design decisions
h) Schematic design (along with circuit analysis)
i) PCB layout and interfacing
j) Software design and decisions that go into it
k) component lifecycles
l) component costs
m) prototyping
n) testing
o) development testing
p) configuration management of hardware AND software
q) release to manufacturing
r) customer acceptance testing
s) support of product
t) documenting the snot out of the product so it can be supported in the future
u) (insert all the formal and informal design reviews here)

It seems like not too many of those steps are taught in a BSEE environment.

What I didn't need (thus far)
1) Statics
2) All the fiber optic courses that were the rage when I was in school
3) Depth in Humanities
4) Schrödinger's equation

What I see my coworkers struggle with:
1) Writing. You WILL be informally judged on your email writing skillz, so don't replace the letter s with the letter z. Please also figure out the difference between your and you're.
2) Basic concepts of what qualifies as formal testing.

What I've learned outside of school:
1) Systems Engineers get paid much more than EE's even though they've never had to make their paper concepts work.
2) How to push back at Systems Engineers. (no, you can't control your phased array radar elements with USB... true story)
3) Computer Science people are also NOT engineers.
4) Engineering reviews can be brutal, but it's a lot easier to red-line a page than it is a built up product.
5) A company that is built around technicians will never take advice from an engineer. ie: "Maybe you should move the 50 watt VHF transmitter antenna more than 1 foot away from the APD array that feeds into the 1.8v FPGA." tech: "Buzz off old man." (only weeks later were the plague of "random" data losses attributed to the keying of the VHF radio mic)

My Associates Degree in electronics had almost all of its instructors come from industry. I had a rude awakening when I went for a BSEE and found either grad students who spoke horrible English with no experience (teaching OR in the field) , or PhD's who have never built a circuit.
With that being said, I did have at least two or three Profs at the BSEE level who came from industry and who knew the difference between a soldering iron and a FPGA. Dr. Cummings was one of them and I'm sorry I can't remember the other guys names!

PS: Something to ponder - How many of the above listed items are taught to people in management curriculum's? It's really annoying when the manager drops into your cube 2 weeks after he dropped off a start from scratch FPGA design and wonders why it's not done.

What is the curriculum for Computer Science majors?

on Jul 30, 2013

I've realized this when I finished my on-the-job training. It suddenly dawned that if the academe can not fulfill this need, then the students must be the ones to take action. Therefore, I took action and researched on topics beyond the scope of our curriculum. My target topics had to have something related with current news and trends in technology. Then I learned about the electrical properties of graphene and carbon nanotubes, fundamentals of LTE, etc. Long story short, if the problem can't be addressed by the academe, then the students should.

on Aug 1, 2013

Each student should learn and practice good teamwork behaviors in their team projects to prepare for work life and to drive improvement out in the workforce. Too many supervisors and managers in the "real world" have no clue what successful teamwork is, other than meeting time and cost targets. Talk to recent graduates and you'll hear stories of deadbeat teammates who rode the coattails of hard workers. Team projects should be mandatory and schools must find ways to help the teams learn good behavior.

on Aug 1, 2013

From the outside it appears at "the business of academia" as you suggest it to sustain itself. There are strong indications of this, although subtle. Did you notice that most big schools now have Technology transfer officers? Did you notice that a modern bachelors degree isn't half of what it was a couple of decades prior? The "don't unpack your bags cuz you might be goin' home" weedouts are now electives. Why is this? simple. it's business. If the bachelors degree is deflated, the masters degree has more value and is worth more as it is darn near essential to do useful stuff. The tech transfer officers deal witih IP from a business perspective. they value ideas and exchanges thereof. So maybe it's not all in the public domain?

what then does it look like from the inside? let's say an outstanding, talented instructor or professor actually shows the students useful, practical stuff to reinforce the theoretical. The first thing that happens is that the students chastize them on reviews. "instructor was too hard, too serious, high difficulty". Then the department gets wind of that and beats them up further for deviating from the business model.

If said instructor can offer something practical, interwoven such that it appeases and satisfies all, that's a win, win. To the guys and gals out there doing that work, I salute you however small the numbers may be. To those not doing that work, you have traded effectiveness for comfort and security, which is a travesty.

To mash that with something mark twain once said, try this:

"The man who does not teach useful material has no advantage over the man that can't teach at all."

on Aug 7, 2013

I challenge the responders here to put their money where their mouth is.

If companies are unhappy with the graduates they are getting out of the universities, why don't they form a consortium, and buy or build their own university to teach the subject areas they want?

on Aug 7, 2013

Maybe the industry professional organisations should take a leaf out of the accounting, law and maybe medical, professions, and instigate a Professional Year (or 2) programme.

The one problem I see with this though is that graduates would be forced to stream into specialisations too early in their careers.

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What's Communiqué?

Blogs on topics such as wired and wireless networking.


Lou Frenzel

Lou Frenzel writes articles and blogs on the wireless, communications and networking sectors for Electronic Design. Formerly, Lou was professor and department head at Austin Community College...
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