University of Rochester

Engineering Department Name Change Reflects Emphasis on Computers

September 29, 1998

An engineering department at the University of Rochester has changed its name to more accurately reflect its curriculum. The change by the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE), formerly the Department of Electrical Engineering (EE), is part of a nationwide trend among university electrical engineering departments to better indicate what their faculty and students often focus on: computers.

While electrical engineering departments have changed dramatically because of the advent of computers, so have their students. The devices are now part of many students' lives from the time they can first walk and talk, and many arrive at college willing to tackle computer projects that would make their parents blanch. As Web sites procreate and the tentacles of the Internet reach ever further, there is record demand for people with the technical skills to design networks and create new types of hardware to ensure that information flows smoothly.

"Thirty years ago, young hackers might have been interested in ham radio," says Philippe Fauchet, professor and chair of the department, which offers bachelor's and master's degrees as well as doctorates to a range of traditional and part-time students. "Today's smart high school seniors interested in technology often go into a computer-related field. We want to make sure those students know we can accommodate them."

The ECE department's curriculum covers much of the knowledge and skills students need to design and build computers and other hardware. Some of the world's best work in digital circuit design is being done in the department and is already being incorporated into the next generation of Intel's computer chips. Courses and research projects explore the intricacies of computer networking, design of unique circuits that can transfer huge amounts of information, precise control over millions of transistors simultaneously, and new forms of biomedical imaging.

The demand for engineers who understand such hardware has become critical. Recently the American Association of Engineering Societies estimated that jobs in computer engineering would more than double to more than 400,000 by 2006. The job market for electrical engineers and computer scientists is also booming.

Universities cannot keep up with the demand, producing only a small portion of the students that industry needs. Companies are coping with the shortage, says Fauchet, by hiring bright students from fields like history and giving them a crash course on programming languages, then turning them loose to write programs. "But hardware is like a language's grammar -- it can take years to master no matter how intelligent you are. You can't teach computer engineering in a few weeks." That's why graduates with degrees in electrical and computer engineering are in such demand, Fauchet says.

As part of the name change, the department is adding several courses on computer architecture for its undergraduates. Students graduating this year will earn degrees in electrical engineering, while in future years students' degrees will also reflect an emphasis on computer engineering.

Each year about 25 undergraduates graduate from the department, along with about 15 students earning doctorates and about 15 engineers earning master's degrees, many on a part-time basis. The department is often ranked among the top 10 small ECE departments nationwide by professors and is strong in several areas not commonly covered in ECE departments, including superconductivity, novel materials, and optoelectronics.

The increased emphasis on computing within the ECE department will complement programs currently offered through the University's Department of Computer Science. While ECE will focus primarily on hardware and architecture issues, computer science focuses mainly on software and theory, including parallel programming, artificial intelligence, and virtual reality. The departments coordinate their course offerings, particularly at the introductory level and in the area of computer architecture.