Our world is full of new opportunities for electrical and computer engineers. Many will explore areas as diverse as finance, medical diagnostics, and farming. Even in more traditional jobs, these same engineers will have opportunities to work on technologies that didn’t exist a decade ago, driven by innovations in big data or new materials. To prepare our engineers for these many possible futures, the ECE department has been revising and updating the undergraduate experience—from the ground up.

This spring, for the first time, ECE is offering all eight of its new base courses created in conjunction with a National Science Foundation (NSF) Revolutionizing Engineering Departments (RED) Grant. Since receiving the five-year, $2 million award in 2016, ECE faculty members have discussed, designed, and implemented a new curriculum for freshmen and sophomores in the program. The first cohort of students is finishing the sophomore year courses this spring.

Virginia Tech is one of 21 universities around the country that have received funding through the RED Grant program, which promotes innovation in how engineering is taught across the nation. Each university is using the funds in its own way. ECE is pursuing an ambitious redesign of its undergraduate program to continue giving students a solid foundation while emphasizing hands-on learning and open-ended design.

The new base courses (see accompanying graphic) include Introduction to ECE Concepts, taken in students’ freshman spring semester, six courses covering fundamental topics in the sophomore year, and the Integrated Design Project, also taken in the sophomore year, in which students use skills from those first seven courses to solve an open-ended design challenge.

Once students have completed these courses, they can pick focus areas to emphasize in their junior and senior years.

A Broad Foundation

“Our students should think of themselves as ECE students, not EE or CPE students,” says Tom Martin, who is helping lead the undergraduate program’s redesign. Increasingly, he points out, employers want students with broad knowledge of how technology works, and who have broad exposure to different specializations. They want employees who will coordinate their efforts with other engineers working on different aspects of the same project—not slow progress because of cultural or knowledge barriers between disciplines.

“If you see a problem, it may or may not be the area you specialize in, you need to know enough all the way through the stack that you can talk to someone else,” notes Martin. Arthur Ball, who is also involved in the redesign, echoes this point, saying “The number one thing industry groups told us they wanted was for students to be able to debug better. That requires a significant amount of skill. How do we teach that? I think the way to do that is for them to have better system-level understanding.”

Exposing students to a broad range of fundamental skills also helps them discover their interests earlier in their education. “I used to teach intro to CPE, which was required for EE students,” says Martin, “I can’t tell you how many times students hadn’t taken it as a sophomore and only realized as juniors or seniors that it was what they really want to do.”

ECE sophomore Eli Socash agrees that experiencing different aspects of ECE early helps students find their interests. “Getting the EE side and the CPE side helps you decide how to specialize in one of those fields. I know a lot of students were thinking they wanted to do EE and changed their minds. I have to credit the program for helping students who wanted to be in EE figure out they’re more interested in CPE actually.” Of course, this works both ways.

The other major advantage of the redesigned sophomore curriculum is that faculty members will have a better notion of what skills students have when they go on to advanced coursework.

“We used to have this really wide variation in student preparation,” Martin observes, “Some students would not take certain sophomore courses until their senior year. So, in the old days, faculty members in those courses have told me they would be scaring half the class and boring the other half. There will be less variation now. If things go the way we expect, we will have more of a cohort of students going through the program.”

To make sure students are prepared for their junior and senior years, faculty members teaching the new courses are determining which concepts must be emphasized early and what knowledge can be best covered in upper-level classes.

“Some of the material we teach now in 1004 [Introduction to ECE Concepts] never really used to be discussed in the undergraduate program,” explains Ball. “For example, the uses of capacitors in circuits. There are many kinds of capacitors and choosing the right kind for the right application is an example of material that never used to be covered in undergraduate programs. But all undergrads need a clear understanding of this material.”

In general, he adds, “We’re homing in on the concepts that we really need students to understand fully before leaving a course.”

Once students reach their junior and senior years, they will have more electives and can tailor their education to their interests and pursue a secondary focus in related disciplines.

Hands-On Design

The new curriculum also emphasizes hands-on learning: each course includes a design or lab project. “The rigor of the theoretical work must still be there, but we’re showing how that rigor and theory fits into the framework of designing a system,” says Ball. “We want it to be exciting.”

Sophomores are building dancing drones, solar-powered garden lights, and even boost converters; in the Integrated Design Project this year, they have the choice to design an audio-direction finder, a 3D printed wind turbine, or a smart home system.

“Getting into the meat of the courses has been really fun,” says ECE sophomore Danny Flynn. “There are a lot of hands-on assignments now. Every course has a hands-on lab, or out-of-class experience designing something. In 1004, we got to experiment with solar panels and all that stuff you wouldn’t normally see until later on."

Flynn has joined extracurricular design teams like RockSat-X to apply what he is learning in his classes. “What they learn in these new base courses,” observes Ball, “is really helping them be more effective team members in these design competitions. I think we’ll see a pretty significant improvement in student design competitions. We’re making sophomores very important members of the team.”

The early experience producing technology will also help students demonstrate to potential employers that they have concrete skills. “One thing I enjoyed talking about in interviews,” says Socash, “was that I got to simulate a 16-bit computer. I’m not just sitting in a desk in a classroom, it’s more like I’m applying the classroom knowledge to projects.”

The hands-on assignments also helped him determine what he really enjoyed as an engineer. “I found I wasn’t a fan of wiring circuits, but loved microcontrollers. In Introduction to Digital Systems, we were given a microcontroller and got to simulate electronics components like multiplexors and decoders. I really enjoyed that.” He is working now on the smart home system in the Integrated Design Project, which also incorporates microcontrollers.

Ryan Singman, another sophomore in ECE, had a similar experience, but in Embedded Systems. “I’ve discovered I’m interested in lower-level embedded design,” he says. “I really enjoyed the way it was taught, and building understanding from the bottom up. It wasn’t something I thought I had an interest in before.”

Pedagogical Fine-Tuning

The new sophomore curriculum is itself a design project: faculty members worked together to conceptualize the system and then turn their vision into a functioning program. Now, they are evaluating its performance and making adjustments by consulting with students, instructors, and outside evaluators to fine-tune the courses.