We have good news: the latest US News & World Report undergraduate ranking lists our BSEE degree as 15th and the BSCPE as 18th in the nation. This is an excellent showing in the face of tough competition. These rankings are based on opinion surveys of engineering deans.
In a recent survey of its 323 freshman ECE students, the University of Illinois (ranked in the top 5) asked why they chose the university. The most common answer was that the choice was based on rankings especially for out-of-state students. In additon to helping recruit top students, being highly ranked puts us in a high-quality peer group of schools used to set faculty salary goals. Higher faculty salaries allows us to attract outstanding professors to build our academic and research programs.
What makes an outstanding undergraduate curriculum? The answer varies by constituent group. Students expect to receive the tools that will prepare them for successful 40-year careers. Employers want graduates with technical skills that can be applied immediately upon graduation. Today, this means knowledge in computer simulation and design packages for circuits, devices, and systems. The faculty always insists that the curriculum have rigorous mathematical and physical content and that students can conceptualize as well as compute.
The student, employer, and faculty desires cannot all be satisfied fully, but the ECE Curriculum Committee expends much effort toward that very goal. For example, a key factor in curriculum design is how to introduce students to ECE. During my years as a student and a professor, I have seen the first course in ECE change from electromagnetic fields to circuits to programming. Since ECE has its fundamental principles in Maxwell’s equations, it was logical to start students there, as I did as a student. Fields, however, is conceptually difficult, and needs significant mathematical background, requiring the course to be in the sophomore year. Circuit theory is much more rule-based and students did well with this as a first course. With the goal of involving students earlier, six years ago, C programming was introduced in the second semester of the freshman year. This enables students with only single-variable calculus and engineering fundamentals as a prerequisite to be exposed to ECE. The first few years we taught the course, it was a learning experience for all, but it is running smoothly now.
The college is now planning a second-semester freshman program that has a digital track for EE, CPE, and CS students. Thus, in the second semester, freshmen will take the ECE programming course and the digital-track EF course.
While on the topic of undergraduate curriculum, I will mention the trend in engineering toward broader-based interdisciplinary problems that require engineers to have a diverse background. As an undergraduate, I participated in a 5-year engineering-liberal arts and sciences degree, which included course work in philosophy, history, anatomy, botany, and Russian. While I do not think students should take an extra year as undergraduates, I do encourage them to use electives for courses in life science, business, and the liberal arts.
We welcome feedback from our alumni regarding curriculum issues. Please feel free to contact me with your perspectives and advice. We hope to be contacting many of you this year for your opinions and suggestions.