The Evolution of the Electrical Engineering Curriculum

March 11, 2021 by Kimber Wymore

From Thomas Edison's first power plant to the guided missiles of WWII, EE education has always advanced alongside hallmark electronic innovations.

Many universities today offer a basic electrical engineering education; however, some are more renowned than others. Electrical engineering wasn't always what it is today. Before electrical engineering was an official profession, physicists, mathematicians, and inventors laid the groundwork that would eventually create the EE education system. 


Famous innovators such as Westinghouse, Edison, and Tesla (respectively) helped inspire engineering education with their creations.

Famous innovators such as WestinghouseEdison, and Tesla (respectively) helped inspire engineering education. Images used courtesy of the Library of Congress


The Age of Industry Calls for Technicians and Engineers

After the rise of the Industrial Revolution, it was steadily becoming more apparent that there was a need for electrical engineers. Innovations were booming, and the demand for electricity and electronics was becoming a necessity. 

A significant turning point in electrical engineering history occurred when Thomas Edison opened the first commercial power plant in the U.S. in September 1882. This development demonstrated the growth of electricity in the modern era and the need to progress electricity-based applications.


A model of the Pearl Street Station, the first commercial power plant.

A model of the Pearl Street Station, the first commercial power plant. Image used courtesy of the Smithsonian and the National Museum of American History


When it came to innovating electronics, there were technicians, scientists, and engineers. MIT's Paul Penfield (professor emeritus of electrical engineering) distinguishes while technicians used existing technology and scientists advanced science, engineers were the link between the two: engineers could use existing technology and develop new technology using cutting-edge scientific principles

In the same fall as Edison's power plant opening, MIT created its first curriculum for electrical engineering.


MIT Establishes the First Curriculum

When MIT began to consider the need for electrical engineers, and thus a curriculum, the physics department chair, Charles Cross, took the lead in creating the coursework. 


Charles Cross teaching at MIT.

Charles Cross teaching at MIT. Image used courtesy of MIT


However, there were a few issues along the road of adopting this curriculum. One primary objection to creating an electrical engineering curriculum was the lack of advanced technology: there were not enough electricity-based applications in the United States. 

But this obstacle wouldn't hold Cross back. "Engineers generally don’t wait around for the science to be fully developed before they want to make use of it,” Penfield later noted. “They’re basically tinkerers and inventors at heart, and they want to use this stuff. And if the science isn’t there, they’ll go ahead anyway.”

Originally at MIT, there were three branches of engineering: mechanical, mining, and civil. The first few years of electrical engineering education significantly overlapped with the curriculum in mechanical engineering. It wasn't until the later stages of the degree that students learned about telephony, power transmission, and telegraphy. 


MIT's 1882 EE degree first year curriculum.

MIT's 1882 EE degree first-year curriculum. Image used courtesy of F.E. Terman and MIT


Since MIT initially rolled out an EE program in its course catalog, EE students have remained a dominant presence at the university—roughly 27 percent of the student body after its first decade


War and EE Education

During both world wars, the engineering educational system went through a shockwave. With drastic advancements in technology like radar, microwaves, and guided missiles, it became apparent that the educational system wasn't keeping up. 

After WWII, many universities pushed EE education to focus on the fundamentals underlying electrical engineering, like mathematics and physics. Educational institutions started to remove unnecessary courses like surveying to instill the building blocks that would help engineers keep stride with advancements in manufacturing.


Electrical Engineering Education Today

Electrical engineering as both a profession and an educational practice has come a long way from its beginnings. Today there are many different branches and disciplines of electrical engineering, from power to RF and beyond. 

While the early days of EE curriculum often followed the lead of industry innovations, the reverse seems to be true today. Some of the top electrical engineering research comes out of universities—often spinning out into industry startups. 


Recent Research Breakthroughs From EE Programs

Check out some recent findings from EE students around the world.



How have you seen EE education evolve in your lifetime? Share your experiences in the comments below.