Why Keep Students and Employers Guessing?
Different electrical and computer engineering curricula create confusion about what a degree represents.
Opinion by Anu Aggarwal
The electrical and computer engineering (ECE) curriculum varies widely among institutions. I personally found this out while struggling through qualifying exams for a master’s and Ph.D. program at the University of Maryland–College Park after receiving a bachelor’s degree in ECE from the University of Manchester. When I applied for jobs after completing my Ph.D., I was asked about my skill sets. This indicated that potential employers couldn’t tell from my degree in ECE what skills I had.
To highlight the disparity across schools, I compared undergraduate curricula and courses offered at 17 different electrical and computer engineering undergraduate programs at 10 different California universities—five from the University of California (UC) system and five from the California State University (CSU) system.
Here is what I found: In the UC system, some universities offer a joint degree in ECE, while others offer a separate degree in electrical engineering (EE) or computer science (CS). In the CSU system, EE and computer engineering are offered as separate degrees. If a computer science degree is offered at a CSU, it is generally by a separate CS department. There is no uniformity in designation of the degrees across institutions even within a single public university system. And all the various degrees awarded in the field are eligible for accreditation by ABET, which says that its program criteria “apply to engineering programs that include ‘electrical,’ ‘electronic(s),’ ‘computer,’ ‘communication(s),’ telecommunication(s), or similar modifiers in their titles.”
In the CSU system, the EE degree includes courses in analog circuits, device physics, signals and systems, and control and communications. The CE program includes courses in digital logic, FPGA (field-programmable gate array), Verilog, microcontrollers and computer architecture. At the UC system, the EE degree includes all these courses, and the CS degree includes programming courses.
The core courses being offered at these schools vary even for the same degree. Some of the core courses like Introduction to Engineering, Digital Logic Design, a programming language, and Circuit Theory are similar for all ECE, EE, and CE degrees, but there is a lot of disparity regarding other core courses. The CS has core subjects like computer organization, operating systems, and software engineering. There are also disparities in the number of lab courses and project-based courses. Most departments offer 5 to 10 lab courses; a few offer more than 10 or less than 5. So, within the degrees there is no uniformity in curricula. Finally, the number of credit hours required by each school for graduation varies from 120 to 200, indicating a lack of uniformity in degree requirements. The schools with quarter-semester courses require 180 to 200 credits to graduate, while those with semester-long courses require around 120.
There is one area of agreement among all the schools I looked at: Students must earn at least a C to pass a course.
Disparities may not be limited to course designations, core courses, lab or project-based courses, credit requirements, and grade requirements at different universities. I have not studied whether disparities exist in the content of courses with similar designations.
While my review was limited to public universities in California, it is reasonable to surmise that the range of curricula and requirements found there apply to other states and may point to a nationwide problem. If so, professional societies, universities, and accreditors need to address it. The current lack of uniformity can be confusing to students and potential employers, as illustrated by my own experience. As the curricula are designed currently, it is hard to comprehend the skill sets of a person with a degree in electrical engineering and computer science. A possible solution would be for ABET to indicate what degrees can be awarded—whether in ECE, EE, CE, CS, or all of them. At the very least, within each degree designation, there should be uniformity in the required number of credit hours, core courses, and lab courses. Standard textbooks should be developed or selected for the core courses, with equivalent options available. Thereafter, to take advantage of faculty specialization in different areas, universities could offer a variety of elective subjects. These changes would mean less stress for students transitioning between universities and less confusion among employers looking for a particular set of skills.
Anu Aggarwal is an assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering at Grand Valley State University.