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A brief history of electrical engineering education

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1 Author(s)
Terman, Frederick E. ; Stanford University, Stanford, CA

Electrical engineering curricula made their first appearance in the U.S. in the early 1880's as options in physics that aimed to prepare students to enter the new and rapidly growing electrical manufacturing industry. As this industry developed, so did electrical engineering education, and within a decade made a place for itself as an equal among the older engineering departments. The curricula that evolved followed the needs of the industry, and before World War I were concentrated largely on the properties of dc and ac circuits and equipment and associated systems of power distribution. Before World War I, little graduate work was carried on, and what passed in academic institutions for "research" was typically advanced testing. The standard career pattern was to receive a B.S. deggee and then obtain a job where one could learn how practical electrical work was done. After World War I, developments in broadcasting and communication led to the appearance of communication options within electrical engineering departments. Concurrently, students having a special interest in teaching or in research were increasingly encouraged to obtain the master's degree. However, the numbers who did so were small, and practically no electrical engineers sought a doctor's degree. For example, at the Massachussetts Institute of Technology in 1925 there was only one member of that large faculty who held an earned doctorate, while the background of about half of the faculty consisted of a bachelor's degree plus practical experience. Under these circumstances research performed in academic institutions was in most cases superficial, although here and there some significant work was carried on by an unusual professor. When World War II came along and brought into being such new electrical and electronic techniques such as radar, microwaves, control systems, guided missiles, proximity fuses, etc., the electrical engineers were caught unprepared. As a group they had neither the fundamental knowledge required to think creatively about these new concepts, nor the research experience to carry through. Thus most of the great electrical developments of the war were produced not by engineers, but rather by scientists, particularly physicists who had turned engineers for the duration. - In the decade after the war, electrical engineering education went throush a complete transformation. Prewar courses were drastically revised. Increased emphasis was placed on fundamentals, including particularly emphasis on physical and mathematical principles underlying electrical engineering. These results were achieved by reducing the time devoted to teaching engineering practice, by eliminating subjects such as surveying that were of little concern to electrical engineering, and by reducing the concentration on 60-cycle power. In addition, master's programs were developed that were direct extensions of the revised bachelor's program, and in time the master's degree became the recommended degree goal of the student who desired to follow a career in technical engineering. Concurrently, the doctor's degree became the objective of those who planned a career in academia or of research in industry, or who wanted training superior to that of their many classmates working for the master's degree. With government funds available, programs of studentfaculty research developed on many campuses that were the equal of the research being carried on in the best industrial laboratories. The combined effect of curriculum changes, more students carrying on graduate work, the existence of university research laboratories of the highest caliber with this research led by well-trained faculty aided by doctoral and master's candidates, has completely changed both the character and intellectual level of eletrical engineering on the campus. This is illustrated by the fact that in a 1969 survey of a representative group of major high technology firms, 82 percent agreed with the statemen

Published in:

Proceedings of the IEEE  (Volume:64 ,  Issue: 9 )

Date of Publication:

Sept. 1976

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