Curriculum History


Early Curriculum

In the department’s first year, it enrolled 176 undergraduate students and employed four instructors and staff members. These individuals witnessed an increasing demand for electric power to feed growing cities and machinery proliferating industry and the home. The department’s academic program focused on teaching students fundamental engineering principles and producing graduates for careers in industry.

In 1909, Department Head Fred A. Fish told the university’s President Albert B. Storms: “It is the purpose of the department to train its students that they may become constructive engineers; that they shall not only thoroughly understand the fundamental physical principles which underlie the profession but also realize the relations that exist between engineering as a profession and engineering as a factor in our general purpose.”

Students’ first two years of college laid the groundwork for obtaining their degree. By their senior year, students took a course on alternating current machinery where they were given practical or theoretical problems to solve in the lab. The students reviewed the theory, sketched a preliminary plan for the electrical connections, tested the plan, made the calculations, and recorded the results. They were expected to repeat the process until they achieved the correct results. This course was a precursor to today’s senior design course.


Post-World War I Course Work

After World War I through the 1920s, Department Head Fred A. Fish turned to alumni for input and the department revised its curriculum. The resulting curriculum emphasized the administrative and economic aspects of engineering along with the technical. Electrical engineering students started taking accounting, history of engineering, conservation of natural resources, and public speaking courses and dropped electrical railways, telephony, and illumination classes. This change coincided with a change in the emphasis of general training in lieu of the specialization that dominated the early curricula. According to the course catalog, electrical engineering students now were trained “with the best possible foundation for responsible positions in the profession, from the technical to the administrative.”

World War II and Iowa State EE Education

Mervin S. Coover, the department’s head from 1935 to 1954, led the department through the World War II era. Under his leadership, the department contributed to the war effort, moved into a new building, added electronics education to the curriculum, and expanded graduate study.

World War II brought national recognition to Iowa State’s EE department as the federal government sent 3,100 U.S. Navy men to Ames to enroll in electrical and diesel training courses and 105 women, called Curtiss-Wright Cadettes, to enroll in engineering mechanics and general engineering courses. Iowa State was one of only six electrical engineering schools chosen to conduct this training, and Coover directed the Naval Training School at Iowa State.

According to Iowa State’s the Bomb yearbook, “Because of the extreme importance of engineering ability in modern mechanized warfare, the demand for engineers has almost become a clamor. To meet this demand, the division is supplementing a speeded up general curricula with several 12-week defense courses.” Thus, the EE department began offering several 12-week defense courses, including a course on the radar warning system that trained 60 men every two quarters. In 1942, the department also began a 16-week, 42-credit-hour program consisting of mathematics, electrical theory, tool instruction, and naval instruction courses, as well as electrical and wiring labs. The contract with the Navy to train its men and women ended in 1944.

Similar to after World War I, Iowa State was not prepared for the influx of students after World War II. Many students were denied enrollment because the college lacked space to house them. About 300 students were allowed to enroll and attend classes at Camp Dodge Annex near Des Moines, Iowa. These students occupied accommodations the U.S. Army had used. C. James “Jolly” Triska (BSEE ’50; MSEE ’56, PhDEE ’61), who later became a professor in the department, was one of the individuals who took classes at Camp Dodge. During his career, Triska coauthored two books on microprocessors and was known as a fantastic teacher.

Post World War II Era and Introduction of New Electrical Engineering Subject Areas

Beginning in the 1950s, the department expanded its circuit analysis area and developed its systems area beyond Iowa State’s classic education in power systems, where the department traditionally had been strong. In 1957, the College of Veterinary Medicine, College of Engineering, and EE department initiated the world’s first formal graduate program in biomedical electronics. The program aimed to “design equipment for detecting biological changes, the improvement of present instruments, and the evaluation of results by quantitative methods.” In 1969, master’s and PhD degrees in biomedical electronics were established and the program continued to grow in the 1970s.

In the 1960s, Coover instigated weekly seminars on “affairs in the electrical engineering arts and science or in allied fields” for faculty, graduate, and undergraduate students. The seminars acted as a “tutorial service” for students and faculty to help stimulate graduate students’ interest in possible thesis topics. Speakers included faculty, graduate students, and representatives from industry. The department continues to hold weekly seminars today.

Globalization of Education

In the early 1960s, then-Department Head Warren B. Boast (PhDEE ’36) thought the EE department should improve its efforts to attract undergraduate and graduate students from developing countries throughout the world. Boast saw this as a means to advance other countries’ technologically for their own sake. By bringing qualified young minds to Iowa State University to study electric power, the students would return to their native lands with electric power knowledge to better their communities.

Boast’s global view of education coincided with a change in the department’s curriculum in the early 1960s. Students’ first year of instruction now consisted of solely basic, generalized engineering education, followed by three years of intense study in an area of specialization. The new curriculum promised to be more flexible and receptive to various needs of incoming students from diverse backgrounds.

In 1996, College of Engineering Dean James L. Melsa (BSEE ’60) encouraged all departments within the college to actively seek partnerships with individuals in other disciplines, universities, businesses, and government organizations across the world. The ECpE department already had instituted an exchange program with Assiut University in Egypt in 1993, allowing electrical and computer engineering students to gain a global perspective. Today, about 20 ECpE students participate in study abroad opportunities each year. The department also offers a special program allowing Birla Institute of Technology and Science students from India and Dubai to study at Iowa State.

Computer Engineering’s Beginnings

The continuing development of electronics and increasing applications of computers in the 1970s profoundly impacted the department. In 1976, the department began offering a Bachelor of Science degree in computer engineering. The program focused on the physical and mechanical sides of computers. Students were trained to be experts in computer design, architecture, and applications, as well as bring an engineering ethos to solve hardware and software problems.

This new major attracted outside interest from industry, spurring donations of lab equipment and other materials. Throughout the years, the department has received computers, design stations, software, floppy disk drives, and more for students to use. Industry also has provided a semiconductor test system and other lab equipment, as well as funding to support research and help students pay for tuition.

Real-World Training

The department’s focus on research generated expansion in the classroom for graduate and undergraduate students and enhanced traditional instruction. This exposed students to real-world engineering problems and led to the creation of a formal senior design project and portfolio assessment for all undergraduate students in 1999.

In senior design courses, students tackle engineering problems by designing, building, and testing a project and then presenting it to a panel of industry representatives. The courses also help students develop their confidence, discipline, and communication abilities, as well as allow them to experience the sort of teamwork they will experience in industry. The Cybot robot and RADVIS (Radio Auxiliary Detection for the Visually Impaired and Sighted) are just a few of the projects that have come out of the senior design program.

Academic Advising

The increasing number of electrical and computer engineering students in the 1980s and 1990s necessitated the creation of a full-time academic adviser position in 1981. Sheldon Pinsky, the department’s first academic adviser, advised 500 students. Currently, the department’s Student Services Office employs four academic advisers.

In 1984, the department changed its name to the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECpE) to address rapidly evolving computer technology, and the next year undergraduate enrollment soared, reaching an all-time high of 1,707 students.

Attracting Top Students

The department always has made a commitment to attract top students and faculty. As part of the commitment to attracting the best graduate students, Professor Vikram L. Dalal participated in the 1991 U.S. Department of Education’s summer internship program to encourage minority engineering students to pursue advanced degrees in microelectronics and photonics. Dalal also has received grants that allow the department to attract the best graduate students internationally.

In the early 2000s, the department’s undergraduate enrollment remained high at about 1,500 students. By 2008, graduate enrollment reached its highest level with 180 PhD and 104 master’s degree students, and graduate enrollment continues to grow.

New Software Engineering Degree Program

Additionally, in 2006, the ECpE department and Department of Computer Science jointly launched a Bachelor of Science degree program in software engineering. The first students began enrolling in the program in spring 2007.

New Cyber Security Engineering Degree Program

In 2019, the ECpE department declared a Bachelor of Science degree program in cyber security engineering. The major is new, but Iowa State has been teaching and researching cyber security since 1995, making it one of the oldest programs in the country. Read more about cyber security engineering in ECpE here.