What is Electrical Engineering

Space shuttling launching. The following text is a slightly modified version by Dr. Karen St. Germain of a document originally prepared by Professor Yu Chang, Department of Electrical Engineering, Union College, Schenectady, N.Y. Original Text Version 9/14/87. Latest Update: 8/2011.

Electrical Engineering is an extremely exciting field of endeavor. Electrical engineers work with signal at frequencies from zero to beyond the optical range, using tools such as computers, advanced mathematics, and wire cutters. Electrical engineers are thinkers and doers. Strictly speaking, Electrical Engineering is not just a single field, but a collection of many fields fused into one unified discipline. It is by far the most dynamic and most varied of all fields in engineering. The best way to find out what Electrical Engineering is to see what electrical engineers do and form your own definition. My opinion has always been that electrical engineers can do everything.

Egyptian pyramid. In the following paragraphs I'll try to list some of the major fields in electrical engineering from my point of view. The order of appearance has no significance, and the grouping of the major fields is arbitrary. Today this grouping seems reasonable. A few years down the road, new fields may appear, and my present grouping may look very strange. After going through the following paragraphs, you might get the idea that specialization at an early stage is the best thing to do. Halt! Think again. If every field in Electrical Engineering is changing rapidly, by the time you graduate, what is popular today might very well become obsolete! In my opinion, the best way to go about it is not to specialize early. Have a broad base like the pyramid and then you can climb high. Take courses that will cement your foundation, such as good solid courses in mathematics, physics, engineering, materials science and computer science. Again, welcome to Electrical Engineering! Enjoy it, and have a lifetime of excitement!

British Columbia Hydro and Power Authority The picture on the left is from British Columbia Hydro and Power Authority.The electric power field is primarily concerned with the generation and distribution of electricity. The energy crisis and environmental concerns provide excitement and challenges for power engineers to develop new energy sources. There are opportunities in research and development of high voltage transmission, and in the manufacturing and maintainance of power equipment such as machines, drives, relays, and converters. The rapid development of research into high temperature superconducting materials is expected to have a great deal of impact on the power industry. Utility companies, federal and state governments, are major sources for employment. Among the many exciting areas of the power field, the following four are particularly interesting:
  1. Energy: The emphasis is to find new energy sources
  2. Transmission: The emphasis is to find a more efficient way to transmit electricity
  3. Power Electronics: The emphasis is on developing new electronic devices and/or circuits to control machines and/or power flow
  4. Computational studies of most efficient usage
To prepare yourself for this field, you should try to have some courses in power system analysis, machines, circuit theory, electronics, microprocessors, and a couple of computer science courses.

Communication Systems
satellite in space Every time you find yourself talking on the telephone you are using the products of the communication industry. Your voice is converted to electrical signals and transmitted in the form of "bits" to another location via metallic cables, or optical guides, or a satellite link. Every time you watch CSI, Grey’s Anatomy, or the Super Bowl, you are using cables and satellites again! The field of communication systems is concerned with finding the best way to transmit and receive signals. Voice, picture, and computer data are typical signals.

antenna There are challenging opportunities in space and satellite communication, optical communication, signal analysis, digital signal processing, data communication, and other related areas. Communication systems is a big field, and satellite communication is already a reality.

AT&T, IBM, DEC, GE, the federal government, and many defense contractors are very interested in people with strong backgrounds in communication and signal processing. The VLSI revolution in electronics has prompted remarkable growth in many areas of communication systems; the following three are particularly noteworthy:
  1. Data Communication: The emphasis is on moving a large amount of computer data efficiently
  2. Digital Signal Processing: The emphasis is on converting signals to digital form and processing them through digital systems to get the desired output
  3. Materials for high frequency transistors and for fiber optic communications; lasers, optical amplifiers, detectors, and switches
To have a good background, it is suggested that you have some courses in advanced mathematics, system theory, communications, microprocessors, probabilistic systems, and a couple of computer science courses.

Control Systems
Astronaut outside of spacecraft. Every time you drive a car you are using the theory of feedback control. As a matter of fact, driving a car is an extremely complex control system. Your eyes see an obstacle down the road; the information is transmitted to the brain for processing, and the new information to avoid the obstacle is then sent to the arms and hands to turn the steering wheel. The same principle is used in navigation and guidance of rockets, missiles, spacecrafts, and toys. If you are interested in robotics, this is the field to get started in.

lunar rover There are plenty of opportunities in robotics, navigation and guidance control, process control and automation in a variety of industrial plants and numerous military and space applications. Some aspects of control theory are also used in nontechnical areas such as business and social sciences. Two areas of control systems are expected to grow substantially in the years to come:
  1. Digital Control: The emphasis is on the digital implementation of control systems
  2. Robotics: The emphasis is on building intelligent robots
The federal government, defense contractors, automobile companies, chemical and steel companies, and computer companies are the major employers.

If you are interested in this field, you should take courses in advanced mathematics, control theory, probabilistic systems, digital signal processing, microprocessors, and several computer science courses such as artificial intelligence, computer graphics, operating systems, etc.

laser disc The electronics field is still in the midst of a revolution. In the early days electronics was a subject that included physics and the circuitry of vacuum tubes. A great deal has changed since the invention of the transistor. Except for high power and/or high frequency applications, the vacuum tube is seldom used. In low power applications the electronic circuits are not only entirely solid-state, but also integrated. The Operational Amplifier is rapidly becoming the basic building block for analog circuits, and the Very Large System Integration or VLSI is the product of the latest revolution in the development of integrated circuits. VLSI is becoming the basic building block for digital and/or computer electronics. Customized VLSI signal processing chips have been used to improve machine vision. The electronics revolution has made high tech affordable. Microprocessor-controlled instrumentation is already a reality. Four areas of electronics have been receiving a tremendous amount of attention:
  1. Computer Electronics: The emphasis is on computer-related electronics
  2. Communication Electronics: The emphasis is on the physical implementation of a communication system
  3. Electronic Materials: new materials and new atomic dimension transistors and circuit elements. New ways for processing materials with nanometer dimensional scales
  4. Computer-Aided Analysis and Design: filter design and optimization techniques
How to use electronics intelligently in other fields of engineering is fertile ground in which to test one's creativeness and imagination. There are plenty of opportunities in all kinds of industries.

The dividing line between device and circuit has been blurred considerably since the advent of integrated circuits. It is important for every circuit designer to know something about how devices work. I strongly suggest you take at least one course in device theory even if you only want to be a circuit engineer and not a device engineer. You should also have a wide spectrum of courses in communications, controls, analog electronics, microprocessors, VLSI, etc.

image of earth from space The rabbit-ear antenna on your TV set, the dish antenna for satellite communication, remote-sensing radars, microwave and optical communication links, are in the field of engineering electromagnetics. Information-laden electromagnetic waves are transmitted and received by antennas. The analysis and design of antennas and antenna systems is but one of the many fascinating areas of electromagnetics. Another area that has gained a great deal of attention is in remote-sensing. Remote-sensing radars have been used extensively in target identification, geological surveys, and weather forecasting. The basic principle of radar operation is to find out something about an object without physically touching it. How do you do that? Well, you send out an electromagnetic signal to the object, and you can find out a lot of interesting things about the object by analyzing the returned signal. To study how an object scatters electromagnetic waves is very challenging and rewarding work. Today, electromagnetic waves in the form of laser beams are used to print the page you are reading and record and play the CDs you listen to. Have you been wondering how this is accomplished? Electrical Engineering will provide the answers.

So far we have been talking about electromagnetics on a system level. It is also very important to have a solid understanding about electromagnetics at the circuit and/or device level. For instance, any time you want to design a high frequency amplifier, you have to take into consideration the effect of traveling waves. Under certain circumstances a piece of copper wire could behave like an open circuit, a short circuit, an inductor, a capacitor, or a combination of things.

To design new machines and to improve the existing ones, it is important to know how the magnetic fields are distributed in a conducting structure. Finding a simple and efficient way to compute the magnetic fields in a complex structure is always a challenging problem.

Computers and other electronic equipment may not function in a noisy electromagnetic environment. The study of electromagnetic interference is the subject of another area of specialization called Electromagnetic Compatibility. This involves interdisciplinary solutions. For example, materials scientists can help construct more efficient shields.

There are many fascinating areas in electromagnetics. The following is a sample list of three areas:
  1. Radiation and Scattering: The emphasis is on the analysis of antenna arrays and radar cross-sections
  2. Electro-Optics: The emphasis is on the development of optical devices and integrated optics
  3. Remote Sensing: The emphasis is on the development of special purpose radars
If you are interested in electromagnetics, get a good background in advanced mathematics and numerical methods.