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Georgia Tech ECE Launches New Threaded Curriculum Model

<p>Ashlee Gardner<br /> <a href="http://ashlee.gardner@ece.gatech.edu">ashlee.gardner@ece.gatech.edu</a></p>

Written by Ashlee Gardner, Anna Holcomb, and Elliot Moore.

Electrical and computer engineering are vast and diverse areas of study—a huge strength in providing students with opportunities for interdisciplinary collaboration and ample job prospects in a variety of fields. But this same strength can seem daunting for those just beginning an undergraduate program in one of these majors. Selecting the right courses, understanding career trajectories, and even uncovering the fundamental differences between electrical and computer engineering and other engineering disciplines can be problematic to a freshman or transfer student.

The School of Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE) at Georgia Tech has listened to student, alumni, and industry feedback from the past few years and has made an exciting change to the curriculum that elucidates the myriad paths and careers in ECE while providing more flexibility, greater access to course options, and the ability to create unique degree experiences that fit students’ long-term goals and interests. All of this comes without sacrificing the rigor and curricular strength of the programs.

Beginning this fall, the School will officially adopt a threaded curriculum model for the Bachelor of Science in Electrical Engineering and the Bachelor of Science in Computer Engineering programs.

“This really is groundbreaking pedagogy. We have taken the old programs in electrical and computer engineering and turned them on their heads, creating degrees that are completely unique and able to be quickly revamped as technologies advance and industry needs change,” said Elliot Moore, associate chair for undergraduate affairs in the School ECE.

A single thread represents a path through the curriculum, culminating in a select set of 3000/4000-level courses decided by faculty with knowledge of the area. But a thread only makes sense when combined with other threads to produce a “weave.” As such, students will combine two threads for their degree, allowing them the flexibility to “mix-and-match” areas based on their career interests.

One major challenge that the threads have helped to solve is for computer engineering majors. Many computer engineering majors want the opportunity to take upper-level electives, but those courses are limited within the School of ECE. To compensate for the lack of selection, they often turn to courses in the College of Computing. But due to high demand, they have difficulty getting into them.

Working together with faculty in the College of Computing, revisions to prerequisites and a broadening of courses that fulfill required credits now provides computer engineering students with more flexibility and access to upper-level computer science courses. Computer engineering students are now able to customize a degree that combines both computer engineering and computer science threads--a combination that is highly valued by students and future employers.

The bachelor's degree in computer engineering now consists of the three computer engineering foundation threads (Distributed Systems and Software Design, Cybersecurity, Computing Hardware and Emerging Architectures); three Computer Science threads (Devices, Information Internetworks, Systems and Architecture); and three electrical engineering threads (Robotics and Autonomous Systems, Telecommunications, Signal and Information Processing). Computer engineering students can select threads in one of the following ways: two computer engineering foundation threads, one computer engineering foundation thread and one computer science thread, or one computer engineering foundation thread and one electrical engineering thread.

The bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering consists of eight electrical engineering threads: Signal and Information Processing, Robotics, Bioengineering, Telecommunications, Sensing and Exploration, Electric Energy Systems, Electronic Devices, and Circuit Technology. Students select any two of the electrical engineering threads to satisfy degree requirements.

“With the ECE Threads, we are providing a clearer articulation of paths for ECE curriculum based on potential applications, industry needs, and student interests. Students will also have expanded access to courses outside of the School, for instance, in computer science, which was a particular concern for computer engineering majors,” said Moore.

One of the most important components of the new threaded curriculum is the 1-credit course called ECE Discovery Studio. The ECE Discovery Studio allows students to explore the broader field of electrical and computer engineering with respect to the “big ideas” in the discipline, relevant career options, and areas of research. Students leave the course with an understanding of the fields of electrical and computer engineering, their subdisciplines, and where each fit into today’s grand challenges. They explore the ECE threads making a preliminary decision regarding their course of study and chart a sample year-by-year plan that maps out courses, extracurriculars like clubs and student groups, and co-curricular activities such as internships and study abroad. Each part of this “ECE Roadmap” will be used as a reference to help students take the necessary steps to achieve their goals and work toward their ideal career.

As a transfer student, the threaded curriculum was what attracted computer engineering major Andrew Gonzalez to Georgia Tech.

“I found out about the threads before applying. I knew that I wanted to focus on cybersecurity and distributed systems. Georgia Tech was the only program that gave me such a customized approach to the fields I’m interested in pursuing,” said Gonzalez.

Gonzalez, who is now a TA for ECE Discovery Studio, also found that the course fills an important role in building a community for new ECE students. Every student is new to Georgia Tech and ECE. While they are learning more about their majors and courses, they are also forming friendships and creating opportunities to collaborate on future projects.

During his second semester at Georgia Tech, Gonzalez enrolled in a cybersecurity course and was approached by another student. She recognized him from ECE Discovery Studio. They realized that their skills and interests were well matched.

“I’m more software-focused and she is more hardware-focused, so we teamed up on a class project. ECE Discovery Studio opened that door for a great partnership. It’s really nice to start a new class and see a few familiar faces,” said Gonzalez.

“It has taken lots of patience, listening, collaboration, and cooperation among academic units and stakeholders, but the end result of our new threaded curriculum is incredibly exciting. It’s going to be a game changer for our students, making them even more well-rounded and prepared for life after college. I also believe this will serve as a template for other ECE departments that may be interested in a threaded curriculum model,” said Magnus Egerstedt, Steve W. Chaddick School Chair.

Last revised March 18, 2023