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Why Study Electrical and Computer Engineering? A Q&A with Tim Chang

Professor Timothy Chang

Why Study Electrical and Computer Engineering? A Question and Answer Session with Professor Tim Chang
  • How does electrical and computer engineering (ECE) differ from computer science?
  • Which students should major in electrical and computer engineering?
  • What do NJIT students enjoy most about their ECE major?
These are the questions high school students commonly have about ECE, says Tim Chang, professor of electrical and computer engineering.

What kind of high school students should consider majoring in electrical and computer engineering at NJIT?
Electrical and computer engineering should be the major of choice for students who want to learn how to make a better iPod or cell phone or how to make a faster computer. If a student likes gadgets and is interested in how they work, he or she should consider majoring in electrical and computer engineering.

ECE is a major for students who like science and math as well as computers and electronics. It's for students who want to work on innovative technologies, may it be in automation, robotics, computers, communications or electronics. Many of these technologies feed into other industries such as airplanes, cars and manufacturing, so I consider electrical and computer engineering to be the driver of technological innovation.

How does computer engineering differ from computer science?
Computer engineering majors work on the hardware as well as the software of computers. Computer science students focus on software. By hardware I mean computer engineering students learn how to build parts of or an entire computer. They study all the computer components: the networks and how they talk to each other and how to make a better computer chip -- these are hardware areas. In short, our computer engineering students learn how to design, build and program a computer.

What do your students most enjoy about ECE?
Students who major in electrical and computer engineering at NJIT have lots of fun. They love hands-on design projects, and that’s a lot of what they do. Every semester, for example, the ECE department hosts a design competition. Students divide into teams and work on new technologies. One recent student team designed a walky-talky system with GPS that allows users to locate each other’s positions. Another team designed a two-wheeled robot that can enter a room and map it instantly, and a third team made a device that, when installed in a car, could signal police if the driver were to crash.

Can you describe a hands-on project that your students are now working on?
A team of ECE students is involved in the DARPA Urban Challenge. They are designing a robotic, driverless car that must ride miles, without crashing, through a mock city. The race is sponsored by the military, which is looking to use more robotic tanks and trucks and vehicles. The NJIT team is an alliance of 25 students, faculty advisers and corporate sponsors such as IBM, BAE Systems and General Motors. The companies have given the students funding, components, technology as well technical advice. It’s a student-centered project in which the students plan and run the program, with support from faculty and the NJIT administration. Last year, the student who led the DARPA team received many job offers from industry representatives who came to see the team’s presentation.

What are your classes like? Are they interactive?
My classes consist of lectures, mini-labs and class exercises. After each major topic, there is a class exercise in which students work together. Our labs take place in the computer lab and, working in teams, we use different software to solve problems.

In my classes, I use projects to motivate my students. I use state of the art software and engineering data to produce animated videos of robots, cranes, etc. Students love animation, and all these things make the subjects more interesting. They are accustomed to using fancy gadgets. They don’t have the patience for pen and paper, so I let them express themselves through software design or hardware design. That heightens their interest and motivates them. NJIT makes science lively and interesting and gender friendly. We have many woman students who work as facilitators – student tutors – and they are doing a great job.

What were your main interests when you were younger? How did you get interested in ECE?
I was interested in all sorts of new things: When I was in kindergarten, I wanted my own vegetable farm. A few years later, I wanted an electronics shop. Then I sold my own brand of panda-bear handkerchiefs. But in high school I loved chemistry lab, and in college I started out studying chemical engineering. I quickly switched to electrical engineering, however, because of a new-found passion for computers. After my third year in college, I got interested in automatic control -- automation, machine intelligence, robotics -- and that’s where I have stayed.

What are your research interests?
I love robots, especially those on the atomic level. These robots are so small and capable of such minute movements; they can probe into your cells and extract your nucleus. In another research project, I’m working to deposit the entire human gene sequence onto a computer chip.

What kind of careers do ECE majors commonly pursue?
The engineering education they get is rigorous. They learn how to think critically and to solve problems. Their broad knowledge can be applied to an array of careers. ECE graduates work in business; some run their own companies while others continue their study to become lawyers and doctors. But the majority of our grads work as electrical and computer engineers. They will be the ones to shepherd in the next generation of innovative technologies.

Soon, there will be an MP3 player far superior to the iPod; there will be faster lap tops and cells phones and a much better iPhone. Our students will be the ones who will design these new technologies. They will have creative careers, and the starting salaries for computer engineers are among the highest of any engineering field. I often receive emails from our graduates, telling me about their careers and about how they benefited from studying electrical and computer engineering at NJIT. It’s a wonderful feeling to know that our graduates do well and that they appreciate what they learned here at NJIT.

(By Robert Florida, University Web Services)