What’s Happening In EE Education? Try Business As Usual

July 1, 2010
The latest American Society for Engineering Education conference showed that slow change in matching EE curricula to actual industry needs.

Killer breadboard

Electronics Explorer

Lab kit

I went to the American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE) conference again this year to get a handle on the latest trends. But like last year, finding them was tricky. If there’s any standout trend in EE education, it’s maintaining the status quo. After sitting through some of the most excruciatingly boring sessions I have ever attended and carousing the exhibits, though, I did piece together a general pattern revealing the current state of EE education.

Curriculum Relevancy

If you went to college and got an EE degree, you know the general curriculum. It’s still pretty much the same—a heavy math and science background with EE courses, mostly digital today. It’s difficult to change the curriculum materially, despite what’s happening out in the industry. While the industry itself moves fast and never sits still, academic programs probably move more at a glacial pace. I get the impression that the schools are waiting for some really big change before they make an effort.

Having worked in academia for a while myself, I understand the problems and the thinking. Once a curriculum is in place and courses are developed, it’s very difficult to change them. Faculty resistance is a big part of that, but you can also blame the system—that is, the bureaucracy of the colleges and universities, the state requirements, and multiple accrediting bodies, who all tend to make you jump through hoops for any significant changes.

It’s no wonder the curriculum seems to be locked in a time warp. Current programs are skewed from what is really going on, but most professors will defend what they do since they are really teaching the basics and providing a foundation. That’s certainly true, but I seriously wonder if some of those fundamentals are no longer as important as they used to be.

In any case, most schools provide a very high-quality education that tilts more toward the past than the future. You will be knowledgeable when you graduate with your EE degree, but get ready to start learning tons of newer, more relevant stuff that you really need to do the job. Oh, the things they don’t teach you in school…

Many educators do worry about the relevancy of their programs. Texas A&M University vice president Karan Watson voiced that concern during her presentation, “Can We Accelerate the Rate of Change in Engineering Education?” She said that more changes are needed sooner to meet global competition and goals in student recruitment and retention.

Also, she said changes are needed to handle the complexity and scope of modern engineering problems. Universities need to master their knowledge of the learning process as well, she added. Many pilot projects have been initiated over the years, but few real changes have occurred. Frustration reigns in the colleges as well as in the industry. Watson didn’t offer any solid suggestions but did say that faculties need to change their mental model. I’ll say.

Yet despite the legacy curricula, the major universities all seem to do a good job at research. The faculty action doesn’t lie in teaching but in getting more research grants. Just follow the money to understand the motivation.

STEM Efforts

Given the poor output of engineering graduates over the past years, there is genuine concern over the lack of interest in engineering among high school graduates. We aren’t producing enough engineers to meet future needs. Most EE graduates are predominantly from India, China, and other countries, not from the U.S.

As a result, there are efforts on multiple fronts to increase interest in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) across the U.S. These programs target high school and middle school populations to attempt to get more U.S. kids interested in an engineering career. These programs mostly are in their early stages, so it’s hard to tell just how well they’re working.

Recruitment efforts are difficult because most students know that EE programs have very rigorous math and science content, so they hesitate to get involved. Add that to a very vague notion of what EEs do, and many potentially successful students stay away from engineering. The overwhelming cost of a college education is also a deciding factor.

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Other Trends

If there’s one clear trend in engineering education, it’s the major interest in robotics. There were many sessions on robotics at the conference, and several companies demonstrated robots for lab use. It’s a robot’s world, for sure. We hear daily of the underwater robots that BP is using in the oil spill and the UAVs that keep the Taliban on the run. There are many other robotic efforts in mine safety, police work, and manufacturing. This is a bright spot, as robots do attract the attention of potential students.

Another trend is more online education. This is going on in all fields, but it’s surprisingly happening in engineering education too. More courses are now available, and even more are on the way. The big issue is figuring out how to do lab work online.

Speaking of the lab, I sensed that schools are returning to more lab work. With simulation software so popular these days, I’ve had the impression that today’s EE has little or no hands-on education. Engineering is still a hardware-intensive field, and aspiring engineers need to get their hands dirty. The sessions this year gave me some hope that there is a greater effort to provide more lab instruction.

Instructional Lab Materials

There was an abundance of exhibits at the ASEE conference this year. All the big textbook publishers were there, including Elsevier, McGraw Hill, Prentice Hall, Wiley, and a batch of smaller publishers like Cambridge University Press. As for microcomputer training, there were development kits from ARM, Cypress, Freescale, Microchip (PIC), and a few others. Xilinx showed off its FPGA educational products.

National Instruments presented its Elvis II platform, which includes LabVIEW, a full suite of virtual instruments, and a killer breadboard (Fig. 1). Several interesting demonstrations illustrated the trainer’s flexibility. Several companies now make plug-in boards for the Elvis to make it even more useful. And, NI is set to announce another interesting new educational product, but they won’t let me write about it yet.

Feedback and Quanser both offer Elvis plug-in application boards. Freescale has an embedded controller board for the Elvis. Emona Instruments of Australia has a full range of communications experiment boards including digital communications and fiber optics, in addition to a new one for signals and systems experimentation.

The Elvis isn’t the only lab trainer with virtual instruments. The TINALab II from DesignSoft offers a unit with a dual-trace 50-MHz scope, a synthesized function generator, a signal analyzer, a logic analyzer, and a dc-ac multimeter. The unit attaches at via a USB cable to a laptop. The result is a complete lab station of test gear.

Digilent also showed off a similar unit called the Electronics Explorer (Fig. 2). In addition to the full suite of virtual instruments, the Explorer has a built-in breadboard and power supplies. The test gear consists of a four-channel scope with a 70-MHz bandwidth, an arbitrary waveform generator, a logic analyzer, multimeters, and a digital signal generator. I have one and it’s great, as it gives you a small footprint for experimentation and instrumentation on your desktop.

Units like these are a signal to colleges that you no longer need to buy lots of separate and expensive test instruments for your labs. These low-cost virtual instrument units simply extend the capabilities of the PCs normally available in most labs today. These units are also very affordable, so students can easily buy their own and do the lab work at home or in the dorm.

Agilent Technologies showed off its test equipment for college labs and announced some of the latest products in its University Teaching Solutions. With its partner DreamCatcher, Agilent offers a wide range of curriculum-based solution kits for educators. These complete packages include PowerPoint slides, courseware, lab manuals, and lab stations for teaching analog, digital, microcomputers, and RF/communications.

But the item that most caught my eye was Agilent’s Antenna & Propagation lab kit (Fig. 3). It boasts a 915-MHz transmitter and receiver, antennas, and a wide range of related experiments including antenna pattern measurement. This is a tough subject to teach and difficult to implement in the lab, so this is a real advance in RF education. And, Agilent demonstrated online software that allows students to access lab instruments and experiments remotely via the Internet. This is one feature that will really help the online course movement.

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A Quick Survey Question

Most EE programs still include a heavy dose of math, especially calculus. It’s a great foundation, especially for the EE. Nevertheless, how much calculus is really used today in practical electronic engineering? The various EEs I encounter on company visits and at conferences say they don’t use it all that much.

For example, do you ever use differential equations and Laplace transforms? Some of you still do, but how big a percentage is that of the EE population in general? So, how much calculus do you actually use in your day-to-day engineering work?

  1. I haven’t used it since college.
  2. I use it every now and then depending on the project.
  3. I use it heavily, nearly every day.
  4. I use math software if I have to deal with calculus or other math.

I’m curious to know, so e-mail your answer to me at [email protected].

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