Does EE Education Dictate Technology or Does Technology Dictate EE Education?April 27, 2021 by Tyler Charboneau
With technology constantly evolving and expanding, it only makes sense that the EE educational structure would try to keep up, even during unexpected circumstances.
It’s widely understood that the engineering world is frantically evolving, affecting various outlets from workflow processes to the EE educational system. As companies continue to innovate via R&D and engineering consortiums push development forward, many new technologies are hitting the market. Existing professionals are driving these efforts.
That development can create a disparity in technological understanding. Experienced engineers, or those fortunate enough to gain timely employment, can attain valuable exposure. However, prospective engineers must be prepared with up-to-date information.
To best prepare future engineers, colleges continually adjust their EE programs accordingly as knowledge and trends trickle down towards the academic realm.
EE employment per state as of May 2020. Image used courtesy of U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics
Historically, educational structures have adapted to accommodate industry needs. But what about the other way around?
How has modern EE education been influenced by technological advancements?
Expanding EE Educational Needs
Several sophisticated technologies exist currently, which dwarf their predecessors in terms of capability and complexity. Devices are expected to do more, thus forming a need to pack more components into user-friendly designs.
Electronics manufacturers leverage SoCs, GPUs, DPUs, RF chips, sensors, ICs, shaped batteries, and much more within today’s devices. These devices must be developed, tested, and maintained continuously throughout their lifetimes, though most commonly in commercial settings.
Students have a massive amount of learning on their plates to keep up with escalating industrial standards. Accordingly, academic institutions must ask themselves new questions.
Is our course catalog built adequately to fill current needs? Should the requisite number of credit hours needed to obtain a degree grow? Would it be wiser to swap out topics as obsolete technologies fade into yesteryear?
Trends in Academic Requirements
Accordingly, new undergraduates must determine if an advanced degree is now required for the jobs they want. Technological advancement and employer preferences will heavily influence this. Bachelor's degrees remain the go-to option for entry-level employment through 2020, piggybacking off trending growth in engineering enrollment.
According to the American Society for Engineering Education, a BS in electrical engineering requires an average of 129.55 credit hours, plus or minus 7.37. Students devote just over half of these hours to EE-specific coursework.
EE education quick facts table, 2019 edition. Image used courtesy of U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics
In the United States, 14,221 EE students received bachelor's degrees in 2020. Meanwhile, 6,285 students received a master's in electrical engineering, and 1,162 earned doctoral degrees.
Masters-level electrical engineering programs require 30 to 33 credit hours of study—typically taking two to three years to complete. However, colleges are now offering joint degrees, or what some might call "accelerated programs."
Why has this become commonplace?
There has been a surging need for EE professionals, and colleges respond by attempting to train students faster. It's now possible to complete one's bachelor, and master's in only five years.
This idea raises one question: Can this system work during unprecedented events like a pandemic, for example?
New Learning Models
If COVID-19 has taught us anything, people can complete many tasks from the comfort of home. This ability also rings true in academia, where shifts to hybrid or even fully remote instruction have become common. However, students might have to attend intensely hands-on labs in person since hands-on experience can be challenging to grasp and require technology that is not readily available to every student.
Despite that issue, it is possible to experience the bulk of one's electrical engineering education away from campus. Accordingly, the distribution of economical EE component kits has revived interactivity at multiple schools nationwide. CAD and EDA tools are now cloud-native—allowing students and professors to craft, annotate, and share electronics designs from anywhere.
Live instruction is possible using digital platforms like Zoom, Skype, Google Hangouts, or BlueJeans. Schools like Michigan Tech are even leveraging browser-based lab simulations. Meanwhile, video experiments and even asynchronous learning have skyrocketed in popularity. Students can view pre-recorded lessons and learn at their own pace, which wasn't widely available decades ago.
Finally, there's the notion that online learning is democratizing EE education to a certain degree. Online courses tend to be cheaper and more flexible than traditional alternatives—thus opening academic doors for more students. It's not just obscure institutions, either. Acclaimed schools like MIT, Stanford, and Caltech offer EE online programs. These big names could help move the needle across the country positively when it comes to growing the population of future EE students.
A high-level sample of an EE online MS program overview. Image used courtesy of University of Colorado Boulder
This trend might be integral in helping the engineering field prosper. A 2019 study sponsored by professors at the University of Michigan, University of North Carolina, and the University of Delaware found that electrical engineering is the costliest subject to pursue—at $434 per credit hour. Both undergraduate and graduate enrollment dipped somewhat last year. At the same time, it's not 100% clear if cheaper hybrid and online coursework will encourage higher enrollment.
Embracing a Tech-driven Future
Technology has made EE education much more viable for more students both nationally and globally. The opportunities are constantly growing for receiving in-depth, quality instruction. Even as electronics grow more complex (and varied), it appears that institutions are prepared to adapt amongst other extenuating circumstances.
That's not to say that remote instruction, or digital tools, will be perfect. Students, professors, and professionals alike might decry the shift away from handling physical components—citing that loss of "feel" or connection to devices in question. That viewpoint is understandable.
Thankfully, the advent of 3D design software and simulators will objectively help students hit the ground running, especially when times force unexpected moments of adaptation and growth.
Have you recently graduated with an EE degree, are in the process of, or even teach EE students? Please share your thoughts, experiences, and input in the comments down below.