The Undergraduate Experience
Mosab Elagha still remembers the first career fair he attended at ECE ILLINOIS. As a freshman, he wasn’t expecting to attract any serious interest from recruiters, but that didn’t stop him from standing in line to talk to a Qualcomm rep.
“She looked at my resume and wrote all over it, telling me to change this, change that,” says Elagha, now a senior. “She was extremely helpful, explaining how to navigate the career fair and giving me tips for the future.”
It can be overwhelming being a first-year student in one of the largest and highest ranked departments on campus. The undergraduate computer engineering program at Illinois is ranked number four in the country by U.S. News and World Report, and electrical engineering ranks fifth.
But ECE offers something that cannot be measured by program rankings. It has a strong sense of community, says Sakshi Srivastava, a graduate student who grew up in India. “The ECE community is so helpful and so kind. I am thousands of miles from home, and although I miss home, I know I belong here.”
FIND YOUR NICHE
Student organizations are at the heart of ECE. Because of its size, the department has a myriad of opportunities for undergrads to connect, adjust, find friends, and thrive in and out of the classroom. And these opportunities help students find their niche.
In ECE alone, there are six Registered Student Organizations (RSOs): ECE Student Advancement Committee (ECESAC), Eta Kappa Nu (HKN), Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), iRobotics, Women in Electrical and Computer Engineering (WECE), and PULSE.
Andreya Dart, an ECE senior, says she has loved the IEEE experience. As she closes in on graduation, her only regret is that she didn’t become active in engineering-related activities until her sophomore year. “You only have four years of college, so the faster you get involved, the better,” she says.
IEEE is divided into three branches. The Technical branch puts on multiple hackathons each year, along with workshops on such topics as soldering or the Arduino electronics platform. IEEE members can also become active in technical advancement groups, which are broken into specialties: circuits, digital signal processing, cyber physical systems, and robotics.
Technical advancement groups work on all types of projects, many of which are showcased at the annual Engineering Open House. Dart is part of the circuits technical advancement group, and she says her favorite project was working on a laser guitar. Instead of physical strings, the guitar had laser strings. By obstructing the laser beams with your finger, you could create sounds—like strumming.
The second branch of IEEE is the Professional group, which organizes resume-building workshops, mock job interviews, and internship panels, where students talk about their internship experiences. This branch of IEEE also makes corporate connections, bringing in companies for tech talks.
The social side is Dart’s bailiwick. As director of the Membership branch, she oversees the organization’s social events, from semi-formal dances and karaoke to cookouts and barn dances.
There is a balance among the three groups, and Dart advises all undergrads to strive for a similar balance in their lives on campus. She follows her own advice by playing “double second” for a steel drum band on campus. “Look for that ‘work hard, play hard’ balance,” she says. “It’s important to develop your own community.”
WOMEN IN ECE
This fall, the College of Engineering welcomed the most diverse first-year undergraduate engineering class yet, including 18 percent more women, nearly 30 percent more Latino/a students, and twice as many African American students compared to last year. But there is still more work to be done.
Sakshi Srivastava comes from Allahabad, India, where she attended an all-girls school from first through twelfth grade. So it was a culture shock in more ways than one when she began as an undergraduate in engineering—a field where men still significantly outnumber women.
Emily Alessio, an ECE senior, had similar feelings as she walked into her first class as a freshman and saw a room of mostly guys. But she soon spotted someone from her dorm floor at the Florida Avenue Residence Halls. During her first year, Alessio was part of her dormitory’s living-learning community called Women in Math, Science, and Engineering.
She says both the College of Engineering and ECE go to great lengths to smooth the transition for women.
As a freshman, Alessio went to the Women in Engineering camp, held a few days before classes start. She also joined Women in Electrical and Computer Engineering (WECE), and this year she is secretary/treasurer of the student organization that has meant so much to her.
The largest engineering group for women on campus is the Society of Women Engineers (SWE), which draws from all engineering disciplines. But WECE is specifically for ECE students, and Alessio says she prefers the smaller numbers and the group’s personal touch. For instance, WECE has a buddy program that pairs first-year students with a WECE board member or upperclassman, as well as special homework hours when students can find help.
“WECE has made me more confident by helping me with my technical skills and by hosting professional events, such as tech talks,” Alessio says. She says science, math, and building things have always come naturally to her.
“I was that kid who could play with both my dolls and my Legos,” she says. Her father is an electrical engineer with U.S. Cellular, so he served as a role model, whether it was giving her advice on building bridges for the school science fair or working alongside her to assemble one of her many Harry Potter Lego sets. “At an early age, I was interested in what my dad did,” she says. “I think a lot of other girls don’t have this frame of reference for engineering.”
The role model factor is a primary reason that Srivastava proposed a new statue for campus representing a woman engineer. She says some women do not even consider engineering because “they do not see themselves represented as role models. Public art shows what a community feels and what it commits to.”
“Grainger Bob” is the legendary bronze statue of a man in beige pants and blue sweater, permanently parked on a bench outside of the Grainger Engineering Library and Information Center. It’s an extremely realistic, detailed sculpture with a wristwatch stuck forever at 11:25.
And Illinois has decided it’s time for a woman engineer to be represented in public art. The new statue will be unveiled this spring thanks to support from Texas Instruments.
Supporting the new statue on the Illinois campus is just one of the ways that Texas Instruments (TI) partners with ECE. TI also offers internships and co-sponsors the Women in Engineering Camp, held for freshmen a few days before classes start. The company is among ECE’s many corporate partners, but there’s a special historical connection with TI.
“Jack Kilby is one of ours, and he’s one of yours,” said Texas Instruments’ Renee Fancher. Kilby, a 2000 Nobel Prize winner in physics, is one of the most famous undergraduate students to have ever received a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from the University of Illinois. As a new employee at Texas Instruments in 1958, Kilby spent his summer in the lab. While other employees enjoyed vacations, he spent the warm months building the first integrated circuit, changing the world as we know it.
As manager of communications for the university segment of TI, Fancher works closely with ECE ILLINOIS and other top engineering schools in the world. TI helps with curriculum development, recruits on campus, gives tech talks, and provides products and tools so “students are working with the latest and greatest technology,” she says.
One of the most significant gifts from TI was a $3.2 million pledge that funded some of the key spaces in the new building. Walk into the spacious lobby, and you can’t miss the Texas Instruments Electronics Design Lab just to your right. This is where all freshmen take ECE 110, a hands-on introduction to electronics. During the first 10 weeks of the class, students create a robotic car with a bright red chassis that can automatically follow any set pattern, explains Khushboo Jain, a junior in ECE.
Along one wall of the new lab are cabinets packed with supplies, including mini car wheels, ultrasonic sensors, and Texas Instruments’ integrated chips that give the car the logic to know that it needs to turn when reaching an obstruction, Jain says.
“We work with engineering programs around the world because we want to make sure students are industry-ready when they graduate,” Fancher says. “We want students to not just be book smart, but to get that hands-on experience. And we want to make sure we’ve got employees to come on board and are ready to hit the ground running.”
Can you turn a shirt into a Wi-Fi hot spot by embedding an antenna into the fabric? Could state-of-the-art technology enhance facial expressions on existing photographs? Although these are two very different types of research projects, they both have one thing in common: Srivastava worked on both as an ECE undergraduate. She believes that her early research experiences were crucial to helping her decide her post-undergrad path.
“I knew I wanted to go to graduate school, but I needed to figure out what I wanted to study, and I wanted to get an idea of what graduate school would be like,” she says. “I knew those two questions would be answered if I jumped into research as an undergraduate.”
“Around 45 percent of engineering undergraduates are doing research,” says Natasha Johanna Mamaril, coordinator of undergraduate research for the College of Engineering. This early access to research opportunities gives Illinois students an advantage compared to other engineering programs.
PURE, or Promoting Undergraduate Research in Engineering, “is aimed at first and second year students,” Mamaril explains. This short-term program allows undergraduates to commit to only one semester of research. “The rationale is to get the students’ interests going and give them a feel for what research is like,” she says. The hope is that PURE will be their first step towards more long-term research opportunities.
Srivastava has worked on facial recognition research through PURE during the first semester of her sophomore year, and she continued the work with a graduate student for an extra semester as independent study. After a year off to explore more areas of concentration in electrical and computer engineering, she returned to research her senior year. Two courses about fields and waves convinced her that she wanted to focus on developing antennas for communication, which led her to research about embedding antennas in clothing and investigating how the human body affected the antenna properties.
She worked in the laboratory of ECE Professor Jennifer Truman Bernhard, where she continues as a grad student, now studying what happens when two devices are operating at the same frequency.
Undergraduates looking for a commitment longer than a single semester can apply to ISUR—the Illinois Scholars Undergraduate Research Program. This structured one-year program includes an introductory class on research, monthly luncheons where professors share their research work, and a poster expo where students present their research projects.
The most flexible program is MUSE, or Mentoring Undergraduates in Science and Engineering. Students work with a mentor to set goals and tailor the program to meet their needs, whether it’s doing research or getting advice on applying for graduate school.
All three of the college’s undergraduate research programs involve mentorship. Students are paired with a graduate student, postdoctoral researcher or, in certain cases, a professor.
“There’s no substitute for practical experience,” Mamaril says. “It gets your creative juices going and helps students understand what scientists and engineers do.”
“My advice is to dive in and do whatever you feel like researching,” Srivastava adds. “It’s not a life-long commitment you’re making. It’s a semester-long commitment. Try it, and if you like it, maybe you are in the right place.”
Mosab Elagha, a senior in computer engineering, co-developed an app with a five-star rating and more than 2,000 active monthly users. The app, named Transit, helps the local community by tracking buses. And it’s just one example of how app development can make an impact on the world around us. That’s why PULSE was founded: to help students turn theory into real-life applications. Elagha is the co-director of the annual student-run conference.
“PULSE shows you the applications that are possible from what you learn in your classes,” says Elagha. As PULSE approaches its sixth year, it continues to grow. When Elagha was a freshman, he says PULSE attracted between 200 and 300 students, but the 2016 event boasted over 600 registered participants.
PULSE kicks off with a single day of competitions in various technical areas, such as sensors, digital signal processing, software, and reverse engineering. In the 2016 digital signal processing competition, for instance, teams were handed an assortment of materials with which to create something. One of the top teams created a “Who’s That Pokémon?” device, where you slowly scratch away a black box displayed on a touch screen and try to identify the Pokémon character hidden behind it.
On the Thursday after competitions, the PULSE conference continues with the keynote speaker, attracting industry leaders such as Irwin Jacobs, co-founder of Qualcomm, and Mark Dankberg, CEO of the satellite company ViaSat. Jensen Huang, CEO of NVIDIA, has agreed to speak at the upcoming 2017 event.
On the following weekend, the conference features tech talks and workshops, which draw big crowds. Last year, everyone who attended the Qualcomm workshop received one of the company’s Snapdragon boards and learned how to use it. Meanwhile, at the popular Texas Instruments workshop, students learned how to use the TI Launchpad.
PULSE also includes a start-up panel, which in the past has featured entrepreneurs working on a product that automates homes, as well as a company developing electronic ticket systems that police departments can use to replace paper tickets.
“A huge part of PULSE is networking,” Elagha points out. “You get to talk directly to engineers and recruiters from different companies.”
He also says that working on apps and other projects opens the doors to recruiters and can often lead to internships. Elagha did a summer internship at Apple in 2016, but he says, “I wouldn’t have ever been able to land that internship without doing multiple projects, including the bus app.”
This story first appeared in the fall/winter 2016 issue of Resonance, ECE ILLINOIS' semi-annual magazine.