If you’ve always wondered about the workings of electrical devices, you might be considering a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering. Electrical engineering is a growing and profitable career path, with a median salary of $100,830 per year as of 2020, according to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Electrical engineering programs may be distinct majors, or they may be part of computer and electrical engineering or electrical and electronics engineering programs. To become an electrical engineer, you will need to complete considerable coursework in advanced math, basic science, technical engineering science and design and computer science.
Electrical Engineering Math Requirements
Math and science classes are a big part of an engineering degree program in any discipline. Engineering is the application of mathematical and scientific principles to creative design and problem-solving, so naturally, engineers need to thoroughly understand these concepts to apply them.
Along with the natural, physical and life sciences, mathematics is a cornerstone of engineering design. Electrical engineering students should expect to devote a good chunk of their college coursework to mathematics, either directly through courses offered out of a math department or indirectly through engineering courses that draw upon mathematics principles and practices.
Why Does Electrical Engineering Require Math?
Engineering programs in all disciplines are accredited by ABET (the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology). While all branches of engineering require a knowledge of mathematics, ABET outlines specific course requirements – in math as well as other subject areas – that the curriculum of an accredited electrical engineering program must include. Electrical engineering programs are required to incorporate these courses into their curricula in order to maintain accreditation.
Of course, ABET has its reasons for requiring these math courses. The designs produced in all areas of engineering draw upon mathematical principles. Practicing engineers frequently use mathematical calculations in the course of their work. These mathematical calculations make possible the design of safe and effective electrical equipment, the algorithms that make computer engineering solutions work and many other aspects of work in the electrical engineering discipline. Simply put, although not all electrical engineers perform advanced mathematical calculations on a daily basis, some do – and even those who don’t still must have a solid grasp of when these calculations are needed and how to perform them.
Math Needed for Electrical Engineering
The math courses you will take in a bachelor’s degree program in electrical engineering range from advanced mathematics subjects to probability and statistics. You should be prepared to study differential equations, complex variables, linear algebra and integral calculus during your electrical engineering education. If your degree program happens to be a computer and electrical engineering program, you should also expect to take classes in discrete mathematics.
Coursework in probability and statistics are essential in electrical, electronics and computer engineering programs, as they are in most other types of engineering programs. A probability and statistics course applies methods of mathematical analysis understanding the relative frequency of past events and using that data to predict the likelihood of future events or outcomes. In particular, probability and statistics coursework for electrical engineering majors should cover applications related to this branch of engineering, according to ABET. For example, electrical engineers may need to analyze the risks of errors and failures in their designs and the components that comprise them. More generally, data collection and processing are important parts of many different areas of electrical engineering, such as signal processing. A knowledge of statistics and probability is important for making meaning out of this data.
You may not have studied probability and statistics in high school, but there’s a good chance that you have taken algebra courses already. When pursuing your bachelor’s degree, you should expect to take an undergraduate-level course in linear algebra. This branch of mathematics has to do with solving linear equations between variables – in other words, equations that, if they were to be presented in the form of plots on a graph, would make a straight line. As an electrical engineer, you might use linear algebra and methods of solving linear equations when designing circuits.
Students of electrical engineering must also learn calculus. This branch of mathematics is the one used to express changes over time and other phenomena studied in the science of physics, including motion and energy transfer. In accordance with ABET accreditation standards, electrical engineering majors need to study both differential and integral calculus. Differential calculus examines the rate of mathematical change, while integral calculus is used to measure the total value or amount calculated.
Calculus is also the branch of mathematics in which students typically begin studying differential equations. These equations show relationships between functions, such as quantified physical qualities, and derivatives, or the rates of change in these qualities. Having a knowledge of differential equations is important for electrical engineers working with circuits, electromagnetics and many other areas of this field.
Another important math course – especially for students majoring in computer engineering, specifically – is discrete mathematics.
Laboratory Science Classes for Electrical Engineering Students
Science – by which we mean studies in the natural and physical science disciplines – is another important area of study for aspiring electrical engineers. All engineers must understand the theories and applications of basic science to be able to draw upon these concepts to develop engineering designs. Taking laboratory courses in these areas of science is particularly important because these courses allow students to develop hands-on skills working with science.
Your science studies in an electrical engineering program might include laboratory science classes in physics, chemistry or biology. Physics and chemistry both fall under the domain of physical sciences, and they both involve the study of matter, the material that makes up the universe. Physics approaches this study from the perspective of space and time and the natural laws that govern motion, force and energy transfer. Chemistry looks instead at the composition of matter and how substances react to each other and to stimuli. As an electrical engineering major, you might study the elementary principles of classical calculus-based physics and laboratory coursework in general chemistry and, potentially, chemistry applications for engineers specifically.
Engineers may also study biology in college, although the extent of their biology coursework may depend on their engineering discipline and specific interests. If you’re interested at all in bioengineering or biomedical engineering, areas in which biology and engineering intersect, you should take more extensive biology coursework than if you are only interested in developing fully electrical or electronic devices and systems. Electrical engineers who study biology will usually start with general biology coursework that covers topics like molecular biology, biochemistry and genetics. In some instances, electrical engineering majors might study other areas of the biological sciences, such as anatomy and physiology, the studies of the structures that make up the human body and the functions of these structures.
ABET-accredited engineering programs require students to spend at least one year – 32 semester hours or one-quarter of their total credits for graduation – on math and science courses.
Electrical Engineering Course Requirements
For electrical engineering students, science and math courses aren’t just general education courses on a list you need to check off to graduate. Instead, they form the foundation upon which the principles and practices of all branches of engineering are built. Once you begin developing these competencies, though, you need to move on to coursework in engineering.
Core Engineering Coursework
When it comes to your major courses as an electrical engineering student, you need to build foundational knowledge of engineering, in general, as well as expertise in the electrical engineering discipline specifically. At many engineering schools, students in all disciplines are required to complete the same or similar core engineering coursework. The goal of a student’s core engineering coursework is to act as a bridge from the theory of science and advanced mathematics to the application of those theories in creative engineering design work.
Core engineering classes cover the foundations of engineering design and problem-solving, as well as an overview of the different engineering disciplines. This knowledge is important because engineers often collaborate across disciplines. Although no engineer is expected to be an expert in all disciplines, understanding the fundamentals of other branches of engineering and the work other engineers do can facilitate these professional collaborations.
Core engineering classes vary across institutions but are likely to include introductory studies in engineering and engineering technology, methods of engineering problem-solving, the fundamentals of mechanical systems and design projects and courses.
Computer and Electrical Engineering Classes
Naturally, a big part of the electrical engineering major is taking courses that pertain specifically to this branch of engineering. These topics include computer science, according to ABET. Students must spend a minimum of a year and a half learning the subjects needed to analyze and design all kinds of electrical components, devices and systems, including computer hardware and software.
The engineering courses required in an electrical engineering degree program might include circuit analysis, electro fields and materials, electric power engineering, signals and systems, control systems, integrated circuits, automation and digital communication systems. Often, students complete introductory courses in topics such as power engineering, control systems and communications systems before diving into more complex studies in these subject areas. Hands-on engineering work that takes place in laboratory and design courses is an important part of the curriculum.
Specialization Courses Within Electrical Engineering
Within a degree program in electrical engineering, students may have the opportunity to pursue a specialization or concentration that focuses more narrowly on one aspect of the engineering discipline that appeals to them. Some of the most popular concentrations within an electrical engineering program include communications, electronics and nanotechnology, according to U.S. News & World Report.
In programs that allow students to choose a concentration, the academic track they choose will affect many of the courses they take. For example, an electrical engineering student pursuing a concentration in communications might study signal transmission and reception, antenna theory and microwave circuitry. Students focusing instead on electronics would be more likely to study the digital and analog systems used in computing and communications. A specialization in nanotechnology, the study of matter on an extremely small scale, would focus on the materials and processes used to create nanotechnology.
Computer engineering is one of the larger concentrations within the field of electrical engineering. As a discipline, computer engineering combines knowledge of computer science with the skills for engineering design. Coursework in a computer engineering concentration will typically touch upon topics like computer architecture, operating systems, data structures and algorithms, object-oriented design and programming, computer graphics, software engineering and database systems.
Although biology may seem to be the branch of science that has the least in common with this discipline of engineering, there is one electrical concentration that combines these areas of study: bioelectrical engineering. The field of bioelectrical engineering focuses on the application of electrical engineering principles and designs to areas of biology and medicine, including biomedical signal and image processing and the development of bioelectronics and other assistive devices. Electrical engineering majors pursuing a concentration in bioelectrical engineering will take courses in biology, anatomy and physiology that might not be required of students in other concentrations, as well as courses in digital signal processing and upper-level engineering computation.
Often, the courses that make up an academic concentration in an electrical engineering degree are technical electives. Within a concentration, students may have the option to further narrow down their coursework to the most useful or interesting subjects of study.
Gaining Hands-On Engineering Work Experience
Because the focus of engineering is problem-solving through design, rather than purely theoretical knowledge, it’s essential that graduates of an electrical engineering degree program have real-world experience apply the concepts they have learned. Many electrical engineering students gain this experience through an internship or cooperative program in which they work for a real employer of engineers, learning on the job, according to the BLS.
Students also gain experience through fieldwork opportunities in their coursework, including design studio assignments. In ABET-accredited programs, students must complete a major design experience, often called a capstone experience, in which they apply the science and mathematical principles they have learned to the design of a device, component or system that solves a real problem.
Capstone projects for electrical engineering majors might include the creation of prototypes of sensors and machines or the development of new manufacturing processes.