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Engineering Synergy

Pitt’s Swanson School of Engineering retools Electrical and Computer Engineering programs for fall 2019

PITTSBURGH (June 18, 2019) … Following almost two years of intense investigation, research, and feedback, the University of Pittsburgh’s Swanson School of Engineering is poised to begin a new chapter in the 126-year history of one of its departments. The Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE) received approval to adopt new curricula for its two undergraduate programs (electrical engineering, computer engineering) to provide greater synergy between the two fields, create more opportunities for hands-on learning, and address the needs of employers who demand that graduates have a greater breadth and depth of knowledge.

The two new curricula will begin in fall 2019 for rising sophomores in these two majors and were greatly influenced by input from faculty, alumni, industry, and students. Alan George, department chair and the R&H Mickle Endowed Chair and Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering, explained that the time was perfect to modernize and seamlessly integrate the two programs and encourage greater flexibility in learning.

“The genesis of Pitt’s ECE program is one for the history books. The electrical engineering (EE) curriculum was born in 1893 from the minds of George Westinghouse and Reginald Fessenden, two of the leading engineering pioneers of the late 19th century, while creation of the computer engineering (CoE) program in 1996 was a response to the incredible growth of the industry,” Dr. George explained. “And yet, for several decades there was a disconnect between what would become two very integral fields. This split was a missed opportunity for strength from synergy, especially today when both electricity and computers are ubiquitous to everyday human life.”

The beginning of the curricula redesign began shortly after Dr. George’s appointment as department chair in 2017, when there was already a growing desire by faculty and students to improve the two programs, especially in response to industry trends and new guidelines released by IEEE and ACM (the two leading professional societies in ECE). The effort then escalated in 2018 with major contributions from many ECE faculty members, and with the appointment of two new undergraduate program directors in ECE: Assistant Professor Samuel Dickerson, who would serve as the director for computer engineering; and Assistant Professor Robert Kerestes, who was appointed as director for electrical engineering.

Dickerson and Kerestes are both triple alumni (B.S., M.S., PhD) of Pitt in their respective disciplines.  “We could not be more fortunate than to have Sam and Bob as outstanding young faculty and alumni, with a passion for Pitt and commitment to leading programs and teaching classes for the next generation of engineers that are even better than they had as students.”

Four Strategic Curricular Changes

According to Dickerson and Kerestes, the changes in each program follow four strategies:

  • Following the students’ foundational first-year experience, the sophomore year for both majors features four, two-course sequences in analog hardware, digital hardware, software design, and applied math, with a strong balance of classroom and lab studies.
  • A modernized suite of required courses is featured in the junior year, including six core courses and one advanced math course unique to each discipline, plus a new course on Junior Design Fundamentals for both majors.
  • Senior year includes four discipline-specific electives, three technical electives, and one general elective, providing greater depth and the ability for students to develop specialties and explore other fields.
  • Lastly, design concepts, skills, and experiences are greatly expanded throughout the two programs, both explicitly (new junior and upgraded senior design courses) and implicitly (design-oriented lab experiments in many new and upgraded courses).

“One of the complaints we heard from recent graduates – and which we both experienced as students – is that we don’t let them have “fun” until senior year,” Dickerson said. “Like any engineering discipline, electrical and computer engineers are very hands-on people, and so it’s critical for students to engage in those activities earlier than senior year, as well as understand the integration of design with theory.”

“The input of our visiting committee, alumni and industry was critical in helping us focus on integrating the electrical and computer engineering skills that decades ago were independent, but today are complementary and intertwined,” Kerestes added. “I also think that by leveraging the strengths of our department – for example, from power engineering and systems in EE to embedded computer systems and applications in CoE – we can integrate those in the junior year and better prep our students for employment in co-op or industry, or help them better decide whether they want to continue to graduate school.”

Both Dickerson and Kerestes acknowledge the level of difficulty increases with the new curricula, but the changes will enable the students to do much more as electrical and computer engineers. And Department Chair George agreed that such challenges are necessary to better prepare students for an increasingly competitive global environment.

“I think that, after our students graduate, each will find that the new curriculum has benefited them by making them more adaptable, nimble, and impactful engineers,” George said. “Just as Westinghouse, Fessenden, and the first computer engineers could only have theorized how our disciplines would evolve over the century, we need to prepare our students to adapt to the next technological breakthroughs that we haven’t yet imagined. It’s an exciting time for the ECE Department, and I’m looking forward to the response and success of our undergraduates.”


Contact: Paul Kovach