ECE is reformulating every level of its undergraduate experience, creating a dozen new majors and offering a seven-course base common to all electrical and computer engineers.
The new experience reflects today's reality that electrical and computer engineers create technology that is transforming modern life—from transportation, agriculture, and manufacturing, to healthcare, education, entertainment, and social interactions.
The department is changing both its curriculum and undergraduate culture—in an effort to broaden the range of careers students can pursue and broaden the pool of students who choose ECE.
Historically, electrical and computer engineering has consisted of five basic areas: electricity (e.g. power systems), electronics, electromagnetics, hardware, and software.
"The traditional five areas are too constraining today," says Luke Lester, ECE department head. Students are taking their EE or CPE degree into more varied careers—working everywhere from investment banks to NGOs to medical firms, he explains. As a go-to field for innovation, "we want to encourage more students to go into careers beyond the traditional ones," he says.
The challenge is how to prepare students for such varied career paths.
ECE currently accomplishes this primarily with technical electives in the senior year, but the new goal is to bring more of that excitement to the earlier years.
"The undergraduate program should not be static," says Lester. And there are changes coming to every year of studies in ECE.
Branching into many paths
Instead of pushing students onto a single path, with technical electives in the senior year, this new model allows students to choose the course of study that reflects their personal career goals and interests.
These changes will allow undergraduate students to make conscious choices about what to do next, at every stage of their journey, according to Lester.
There will still be an option for a traditional electrical or computer engineering degree, but students will also be able to choose to explore one or two sub-disciplines.
"We want students to jump right into the exploration process." says Jaime De La Ree, assistant department head for undergraduate programs.
Tom Martin, ECE professor and Bradley Faculty Fellow of Education, describes a major change in the undergraduate experience as a change in approach—from asking students to pass a set of classes, to asking them to solve the problems they need to solve. Martin is a leader on a $2 million grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) program called Revolutionizing Engineering Departments (RED).
The RED team has been focusing on a new curriculum model that blends science, engineering, creativity, and design.
A common base
The foundation of the new curriculum is a set of seven courses, predominantly in the sophomore year, that are common to all EE and CPE students.
The courses, which will begin to be introduced in January 2019, will help students explore foundational ECE concepts that are motivated by hands-on experiences.
A key element of the common base is the integration of threshold concepts. "These concepts can be hard for students to grasp, but once they understand them, a lot of other things make sense," explains Martin.
These classes will also introduce each of the possible paths that students will be able to choose.
"The whole point is to prepare the students for making those choices later," says Lester. "Then they're prepared to make a choice about what career path to follow. How can they make a choice if it's never presented as an opportunity?"
The common courses will also make it easier for students to change their minds and move between specializations, says Martin. By exposing students to the full range of ECE topics, earlier in their studies, students will not only be able to choose their next set of classes, "but also have the opportunity to progress farther into those fields," De La Ree notes. "We want to accommodate new areas of expertise in the junior year," De La Ree says, allowing students to take later courses and gain deeper, specific expertise.
"Our department has always been known for its academic rigor, and that's not going away," says Lester. "But it is also a priority to give students exposure to worthy design problems in each of these possible areas, while teaching core concepts."
12 New Majors
Beginning in fall 2018, ECE students will have the option to choose among seven different majors within their EE degree and five in CPE.
Lester describes the majors as guidelines to help students form their academic experience to meet their interests and goals. Offering 12 majors and two undergraduate degree options requires significant resources, Lester acknowledges. "With at least 85 faculty members who teach students, and many more researchers, Virginia Tech's ECE department is ready for this challenge. Providing variety is what a large department should do," he says.
"We are engaged in pushing the boundaries in so many areas—from developing 3D chips that mimic the human brain, to securing information and the country's infrastructure. We want to convey the excitement of our department's research to our undergraduate students," he says.
"We want the students to be excited about what they're doing, and where they're going," he adds. "We want to open the possibilities."The new majors will enable students to not only choose between electrical and computer engineering, but also say, I want to study cybersecurity,' or I want to study machine learning,' or I want to study power systems.'
Giving students more choices means that they (and their professors) won't have to work around students who do not want to be in a particular course, who are just doing it to check the box, explains Lester. "That's another goal: students should be motivated to learn."
The flip side is that students may need to put more effort into discovering their interests, and determining their paths from an early stage. ECE's team of professional academic advisors will help students navigate their options. Advising will become more in depth—almost an interview process, says Lester.
"We have the resources to help the students take ownership of their studies," he says. "This is how we train students to become lifelong learners. Isn't that the ultimate goal of education?"