New Computer Engineering curriculum includes emphasis on computing systems


Meg Dickinson, ECE ILLINOIS

A new computer engineering curriculum for ECE ILLINOIS undergraduates is designed to start students thinking about engineering systems, rather than components of systems, from the moment they begin their undergraduate careers.
The new curriculum is in effect for this year’s freshmen, and several hundred petitioned in, as well.
Professor Douglas L Jones sees the new curriculum as an extension of the innovative research that sets ECE ILLINOIS apart. “We’re creating the future with research, and we can see the technical innovations coming down the road because of that research,” Jones said. “We can teach students what they need to know five years from now, 10 years from now. In a field that changes so quickly, this is the difference between a relevant and irrelevant education.” 
Traditional education has cut computer engineering into separate layers, with classes on transistors, digital logic, computer architecture, operating systems, application programming, and more. Then, students are expected to put these components together into systems.
Classes in the new computer engineering curriculum focus on whole computer systems at once, Jones said. The result should be that students realize they have wide ranges of options to solve problems, not with just software or hardware alone. “It gives students a more mature understanding not just of how to design individual pieces, but to design the whole thing together,” he said. “We believe that’s what will characterize engineers doing significant work in the future and changing the world.”
Professor Steven Sam Lumetta said he also expects students in the new curriculum to be better rounded, earlier in their undergraduate careers. For example, students should be ready to participate in research and take relevant internships by the end of their sophomore years because of this early exposure to engineering systems.
Another benefit for CompE students: they’ll now be able to take ECE 445, Senior Design, with their classmates who are majoring in electrical engineering. This capstone class encourages students to use the skills they’ve learned throughout their undergraduate careers to solve real-world problems through engineering. “It’s an open-ended design experience, and students learn to keep records of their work and communicate what they’re doing with teammates and others they’re working with,” Lumetta said. “It’s a useful experience.”
ECE students expected to graduate after August 2015 were given the option to petition into the new curriculum, and 340 students did so. Junior Andrew Kluemke opted in, after taking a pilot version of ECE 120, Introduction to Computing. He believes the new curriculum will give computer engineering majors greater flexibility to pursue their interests in things like hardware verification and software engineering.
“The department did a great job of changing around the required classes so we have more technical electives,” Kluemke said. “Students can now choose how they craft their CompE experience.” Greater flexibility in classes means students like himself will be able to take more classes relevant to the careers they hope to eventually pursue, Kluemke said.
And with the Introduction to Computing class, “the department really reaffirmed its commitment to the bottom-up approach,” Kluemke said. “The first thing you’re coding is in machine code, ones and zeros,” he said. “Then, you learn assembly and then an actual programming language. It gives new students who don’t have prior experience a better chance of catching up.”