Two years ago, ECE sophomores were given 12 new options to tailor their degrees with a focused major, allowing them to specialize in areas such as robotics, photonics, or software systems. The first students are graduating from these programs in May, and they report the specialized focus of their degree is already helping them advance their academic and career goals.

These new majors allow students to align their education with their interests—and earn credentials clearly communicating their specializations. As the field of electrical and computer engineering has expanded, notes ECE department head and Roanoke Electric Steel Professor Luke Lester, employers are increasingly looking for students with specific qualifications. Also, more high school students are being exposed to aspects of electrical and computer engineering before enrolling in university programs. As a result, there are more opportunities for—and interest in—greater specialization for undergraduates in ECE.

“We want our graduates to remain among the most valuable in their field,” says Lester, “and we’re giving them the tools they need to thrive wherever their careers take them.”

Brett Pollman (ECE ’20, Controls, Robotics, and Autonomy), for example, explains, “I did robotics competitions in high school. I knew I really wanted to focus on that. Robotics and autonomous systems sounded really cool to me, but I was always more interested in electrical engineering than mechanical or pure software. At the end of my sophomore year they announced the new majors. It gave me an opportunity. I was going to take those classes anyway. I might as well get something on my diploma that said I did it!”

The new majors are also ideal for ambitious undergraduates who know they want to pursue graduate degrees. Steven Parker and Shubham Dawda (ECE ’20, Photonics) are deciding now between multiple doctoral programs.

“I always wanted to do biomedical engineering,” says Parker. “I had a lot of professors and people in industry give me advice that it wasn’t best to do undergrad in biomed, because you become a jack of all trades. They said to try to learn something really difficult, find your niche, then apply it to medicine. What attracted me to photonics after being in EE, was that for one I liked some of my classes leading up to it. It’s very electromagnetic fields based and has a ton of applications in biomedical. Think laser surgery or the apple watch pulse. It was a great link between electrical and biomedical engineering.”

“I was a little concerned applying to biomed Ph.D. programs,” he continues, “Because I didn’t have biomed experience. I only had a minor in it. You’re up against biomed undergrads, and I’m primarily a photonics engineer. But that was the exact reason I became a really highly sought-after recruit in Ph.D. programs. There are only four schools in the U.S. with photonics majors.”

Dawda, who is similarly deciding between different Ph.D. programs, took an interest in photonics because it draws so much on math and physics but with an emphasis on visualization. “You can see the equations come to life. Maxwell’s equations, electromagnetism, light coming out of a bulb. You can see things traveling. It’s beautiful.”

However, he adds, “It’s a niche field. Not everyone is looking for an optical engineer. People are always looking for an electrical engineer that can design circuits. And we are EEs at the core, we can still do the circuits.”

Many students also cite the freedom to take more advanced courses as a major advantage of choosing one of the specialized majors.

“I was able to take a lot of courses I would not otherwise have been able to take,” says Chris Blackburn (ECE ’20, Computer Engineering Software Systems), who is in the accelerated master’s program. “For example, computer systems was a course I wouldn’t normally be able to take. Having that prerequisite made it possible for me to take graduate courses in my Senior year, like Linux kernel programming.”

“I work for Lockheed Martin,” he adds. “I’ve had a couple internships, and I’m going in for a third. My major has helped tremendously—I have knowledge and experience in my coursework that many undergrads don’t. Because of this, I was able to get a higher-level position as an intern.”

For Megan Bennett and Srinidhi Rao (ECE ’20, Controls, Robotics, and Autonomy), the requirements of the new majors have helped them fill gaps in their background and build confidence. 

“It’s pushed me out of my comfort zone,” says Bennett. “A big roadblock for me was not being comfortable with software. Now, I can definitely put C++ on my resumé, and other more technical skills that are very critical in this field.”

Rao had a very similar experience and explains, “Because electrical engineering isn’t as programming heavy, I originally wouldn’t have taken data structures, but because of this major, I took it. My internship this summer involved AI machine learning. I wouldn’t have known how to do the job if I hadn’t learned it in class, which was kind of neat. Programming still isn’t my greatest strength, but I’m confident that I can do it now.”

These student perspectives offer an initial glimpse of how the new major programs are succeeding, which will become more clear as students continue to move through the programs—and their careers.

“We are in the early stages,” explains Jaime De La Ree, assistant department head, undergraduate education. “In the future we will know more about the trends, and be able to evaluate the popularity of the programs and make any changes.”