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Revamped electrical engineering curriculum puts students on path to successful careers

In spring 2019, Stephen Gedney, chair and professor of electrical engineering, called upon his faculty to evaluate and update the undergraduate curriculum. The goal: to provide students with a relevant electrical engineering curriculum that better aligns with the forward-thinking strategic vision for the College of Engineering, Design and Computing and the new ABET student outcomes.

The committee, led by professor Mark Golkowski, included a mix of senior (professors Hamid Fardi and Fernando Mancilla-David), junior (assistant professor Alireza Vahid), and clinical teaching (assistant professor Chao Liu) colleagues and sought to re-evaluate the department’s educational mission from the ground up.   Specifically, they looked at modern and future trends in technology, evaluated current education outcomes, identified weaknesses and opportunities in the current program, and made recommendations for changes to create a strong, focused curriculum that integrates design, computing, and innovation throughout.

“Our new curriculum sets CU Denver apart from peer institutions, offering a foundation not found in most electrical engineering programs around the country, and more specifically, in the state of Colorado,” said Gedney.

The committee sought input from the department’s industrial advisory board, which represents a broad spectrum of electrical engineering fields, asking board members to critique proposed changes in terms of relevance to both today’s and tomorrow’s engineer. Additionally, the department held several faculty meetings during the 2019/2020 academic year to finalize the changes, which were implemented beginning fall 2020.

Some of the most significant changes impact first-year electrical engineering students and the creation of new computer engineering courses. Professor Dan Connors directed strategic changes to add computer engineering concepts throughout the program to include experiences with neural networks, machine learning, and computer vision. All electrical engineering students now take the new Fundamentals of Engineering Design Innovation course, which provides students with a strong introduction to design with ample hands-on experience. Freshmen then take Programming for Electrical Engineers, which focuses on learning high-level object-oriented programming languages, including C++ and Python, with applications pertinent to electrical engineers. With this foundation, as students move into their sophomore and junior year, their course load now includes required courses in signal processing, machine learning, modern energy systems, the internet of things (IoT), and cyber-physical systems. 

“The changes to the electrical engineering department’s curriculum represents an incredible direction in achieving the goal of partnering with industry,” said James Jamison, AWS technical trainer, engineering alum, and electrical engineering advisory board member. “As an alumni and technology enthusiast, I am very excited for how this will better prepare the students to work either in Industry or Academia for the future. Overall, the approach and content that CU Denver students will learn is going to be relevant and practical in multiple industries and positions.”

The new curriculum is also rich in hands-on experience. For example, the revamped embedded systems course focuses on hardware design and hardware/software interface with hands-on experience and an open-ended design project, pairing applied practice with theory. Furthermore, classic laboratory courses have been replaced with hands-on experiences within designated circuits and electronics courses, which provides valuable experience in designing, building, and measuring electronic circuits while learning the theory.

OtherMill PCB milling machine, cutting bits, wire brushes and blank PCB boards.

Electrical engineering senior Patrick Bales-Parks, who is also the department lab manager, is helping to design the new Circuit Design and Fabrication Lab (ELEC 3900), which combines aspects from the former Sophomore Circuits Lab, Electronics Lab, and Junior Lab courses.

“Although I learned a great deal in all of these labs, the hands-on experience portion always seemed a bit lacking,” said Bales-Parks. “The structure of the new ELEC 3900 course changes that. (Instructor) Lary Speakman is working to implement the course in approximately three stages.”

The beginning of the course focuses on getting students familiar with using lab equipment for testing circuits and the basics of simulations. This includes oscilloscopes, digital multimeters, DC power supplies, and training in soldering. The second stage focuses on the design of circuits through simulation, followed by the creation of printed circuit boards (PCB), which will be created using student designs. “I will be cutting the boards in our 2414 Lab and demoing the process to the class,” said Bales-Parks. “After the students receive their personal PCBs, they will conduct further tests.”

The final stage of the class is to take the cumulative knowledge and design a more complicated circuit for a two-sided board. These designs will then be sent to a local PCB manufacturer for production.

“I think that the detailed hands-on approach for these labs will be crucial in skill development for the undergraduate electrical engineering students and a great boost to the department’s curriculum,” said Bales-Parks.

Students now take a signal processing course at the sophomore level. This course focuses on fundamental signal processing algorithms as well as actual computer programming and application of signal processing algorithms through Matlab.

The student’s printed circuit board is ready to solder on components and test in the lab.

“This material is generally taught as a senior technical elective or at the graduate level,” said Gedney. “However, signal processing has become foundational knowledge that impacts just about every field within electrical engineering and is something all electrical engineers should be well versed in.” This course also further strengthens students programming skills and analysis skills that will be beneficial to many of their required junior-level courses. 

Finally, the interdisciplinary senior capstone design course is now focused on using formal design processes and program-management methods in conducting sponsor-driven design problems with interdisciplinary teams. Teams are composed of electrical engineering, mechanical engineering and computer science students working as a team to design a system to meet a need of an actual sponsor. This provides students with experience of designing and prototyping solutions to solve real-world problems and working with an interdisciplinary team that properly matches skills with appropriate tasks. This provides valuable training for our students as they embark on careers in which these skills will be applied and tested.

To supplement and grow the curriculum, the department has added new courses as well, including machine learning, which is a class of computer algorithms that are based on fitting models to training data as opposed to traditional hardcoded methods. This allows a computer to learn through experience based on data it has seen before. Bales-Parks is currently taking the course, even though he doesn’t need it to complete his degree.

“I decided to take this course because of how relevant it is to today’s world and modern methods of solving engineering related problems,” said Bales-Parks. “…We have been introduced to the mathematics to ensure we understand the ideas conceptually, but the heaviest focus of the content is on how we utilize these concepts in real-world situations…I feel that this approach is very beneficial for us as students.”  

“The new course offerings have been very well received by students,” said professor Mark Golkoswki. “Patrick isn’t the only one who has petitioned to take these new core courses as electives, even when they are not required for graduating upperclassmen.”

“These updates were necessary and important because they have several significant impacts on the electrical engineering students of CU Denver,” said Gedney. “By implementing these changes, we are providing students with a strong educational foundation, preparing them for today’s engineering job market, and carrying them through their career.”

NEW COURSES

Signal Processing: (sophomore level): This new course brings fundamental techniques of manipulating and filtering digital data into the second year of the curriculum so that these skills can be leveraged in later courses and projects. Such an early exposure of such concepts was pioneered at the Georgia Institute of Technology with great success. Students learn required theory but the focus is on practical skills of writing code to analyze, filter, and synthesize data for applications ranging from music, wireless signals, population statistics, and digital images.  

Circuit Design and Fabrication Laboratory (junior level): This new 3-hour lab course is taken at the junior level and provides students the opportunity to apply design processes to create custom electronic circuits. Students also will fabricate their own PC-boards and build a professional prototype for testing and making precision measurements. This is beyond the standard electronics labs which more or less follow a recipe and are limited to a “bread-board” version of circuits. This class will enhance design skills and provide students with valuable experience of bringing a system from concept to full production.

Internet-of-Things and Cyber-Physical Systems (junior level): The Internet of Things (IoT) is an aggregate collection of network-enabled devices, which goes far beyond the traditional networking of computers. IoT consists of a wide diversity of devices, including low-power simple processor devices to more sophisticated devices that communicate collectively as a network, where every device has the ability to identify itself and other devices, and communicate information. Cyber-physical systems are intelligent sensors and controls interconnected with the surrounding physical world to provide interactive data-access and data-processing services. Another component of this course is cyber-physical-security, which focuses on how these physical systems can be both hardware and software secure from unwanted intervention.

Machine Learning (junior level): Machine learning (ML) is a class of computer algorithms that allows a computer to learn through experience and is a primary underpinning of what is called artificial intelligence. Although ML methods have been established in computer science and data analysis for a few decades, its usage is relatively new in most areas of electrical engineering. It has found applications in computer vision, robotics, optimization, imaging and detection, space-weather, target identification, medical diagnostics, and countless other applications. In contrast to the traditional theory-heavy approach, this course is primarily focused on programming and implementation for realistic applications. The course utilizes Python and the Scikit-learn library as the programming tool for students to actually build ML programs and applications. It is unusual to have this as a required undergraduate course in electrical engineering as these techniques are still at the forefront of current research and development. Consequently, this course will give our electrical engineering students a strong edge in the job market.

Energy Systems: This course focuses on modern energy systems, including the study of traditional and renewable (wind & solar) power sources, energy storage, power processing and distribution, and energy networking. The course also provides a review of DC and AC power circuits. This course replaces our existing course in energy conversion, which is a traditional course taught by most schools, but is largely outdated.

Energy Systems Laboratory: This 1-hour lab course provides students hands-on training with modern energy systems and will include modules on power electronics, DC and AC power circuits, solar power, wind power, battery storage systems, electromechanical systems, and AC power transmission. This lab will focus on the use of state-of-the-art technologies providing foundational training for all students in the electrical engineering program. 

CU Denver Engineering, Design and Computing View All

At the CU Denver College of Engineering, Design and Computing, we focus on providing our students with a comprehensive engineering education at the undergraduate, graduate and professional level. Faculty conduct research that spans our five disciplines of civil, electrical and mechanical engineering, bioengineering, and computer science and engineering. The college collaborates with industry from around the state; our laboratories and research opportunities give students the hands-on experience they need to excel in the professional world.

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