What Is Electrical Engineering?
Electrical engineers design, develop, and test electrical equipment. The broad field of electrical engineering involves working with all manners of electronic devices, from pocket calculators to supercomputers. Often overlapping with computer engineering, a college degree in electrical engineering can open up the door to a technical career in almost any industry. Since technology is always changing and expanding, the need for electrical engineers is always growing.
Electrical engineering students learn through a combination of design and lab work. This mix of theory and practical application allows students to think things through and then apply their ideas in a variety of real life situations. Students also learn to diagnose problems and develop a variety of solutions.
Electrical engineering has many sub disciplines, the most common of which are listed below. Although there are electrical engineers who focus exclusively on one of these sub disciplines, many deal with a combination of them. Sometimes certain fields, such as electronic engineering and computer engineering, are considered separate disciplines in their own right.
Electrical engineers typically possess an academic degree with a major in electrical engineering, electronics engineering, electrical engineering technology, or electrical and electronic engineering. The same fundamental principles are taught in all programs, though emphasis may vary according to title. The length of study for such a degree is usually four or five years and the completed degree may be designated as a Bachelor of Science in Electrical/Electronics Engineering Technology, Bachelor of Engineering, Bachelor of Science, Bachelor of Technology, or Bachelor of Applied Science depending on the university. The bachelor’s degree generally includes units covering physics, mathematics, computer science, project management, and a variety of topics in electrical engineering. Initially such topics cover most, if not all, of the sub disciplines of electrical engineering. At some schools, the students can then choose to emphasize one or more sub disciplines towards the end of their courses of study.
At many schools, electronic engineering is included as part of an electrical award, sometimes explicitly, such as a Bachelor of Engineering (Electrical and Electronic), but in others electrical and electronic engineering are both considered to be sufficiently broad and complex that separate degrees are offered.
Some electrical engineers choose to study for a postgraduate degree such as a Master of Engineering/Master of Science(M.Eng./M.Sc.), a Master of Engineering Management, a Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) in Engineering, an Engineering Doctorate (Eng.D.), or an Engineer’s degree. The master’s and engineer’s degrees may consist of either research,coursework or a mixture of the two. The Doctor of Philosophy and Engineering Doctorate degrees consist of a significant research component and are often viewed as the entry point to academia. In the United Kingdom and some other European countries, Master of Engineering is often considered to be an undergraduate degree of slightly longer duration than the Bachelor of Engineering rather than postgraduate.
Professional bodies of note for electrical engineers include the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) and the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET). The IEEE claims to produce 30% of the world’s literature in electrical engineering, has over 360,000 members worldwide and holds over 3,000 conferences annually. The IET publishes 21 journals, has a worldwide membership of over 150,000, and claims to be the largest professional engineering society in Europe. Obsolescence of technical skills is a serious concern for electrical engineers. Membership and participation in technical societies, regular reviews of periodicals in the field and a habit of continued learning are therefore essential to maintaining proficiency. MIET(Member of the Institution of Engineering and Technology) is recognized in Europe as Electrical and computer (technology) engineer.
Tools and work
From the Global Positioning System to electric power generation, electrical engineers have contributed to the development of a wide range of technologies. They design, develop, test and supervise the deployment of electrical systems and electronic devices. For example, they may work on the design of telecommunication systems, the operation of electric power stations, the lighting and wiring of buildings, the design of household appliances or the electrical control of industrial machinery.
Fundamental to the discipline are the sciences of physics and mathematics as these help to obtain both a qualitative and quantitative description of how such systems will work. Today most engineering work involves the use of computers and it is commonplace to use computer-aided design programs when designing electrical systems. Nevertheless, the ability to sketch ideas is still invaluable for quickly communicating with others.
Although most electrical engineers will understand basic circuit theory (that is the interactions of elements such as resistors, capacitors, diodes, transistors and inductors in a circuit), the theories employed by engineers generally depend upon the work they do. For example, quantum mechanics and solid state physics might be relevant to an engineer working on VLSI (the design of integrated circuits), but are largely irrelevant to engineers working with macroscopic electrical systems. Even circuit theory may not be relevant to a person designing telecommunication systems that use off-the-shelf components. Perhaps the most important technical skills for electrical engineers are reflected in university programs, which emphasize strong numerical skills, computer literacy and the ability to understand the technical language and concepts that relate to electrical engineering.
A wide range of instrumentation is used by electrical engineers. For simple control circuits and alarms, a basic multimeter measuring voltage, current and resistance may suffice. Where time-varying signals need to be studied, the oscilloscope is also an ubiquitous instrument. In RF engineering and high frequency telecommunications spectrum analyzers and network analyzers are used. In some disciplines safety can be a particular concern with instrumentation. For instance medical electronics designers must take into account that much lower voltages than normal can be dangerous when electrodes are directly in contact with internal body fluids. Power transmission engineering also has great safety concerns due to the high voltages used; although voltmeters may in principle be similar to their low voltage equivalents, safety and calibration issues make them very different. Many disciplines of electrical engineering use tests specific to their discipline. Audio electronics engineers use audio test sets consisting of a signal generator and a meter, principally to measure level but also other parameters such as harmonic distortion and noise. Likewise information technology engineers have their own test sets, often specific to a particular data format, and the same is true of television broadcasting.
For many engineers, technical work accounts for only a fraction of the work they do. A lot of time may also be spent on tasks such as discussing proposals with clients, preparing budgets and determining project schedules. Many senior engineers manage a team of technicians or other engineers and for this reason project management skills are important. Most engineering projects involve some form of documentation and strong written communication skills are therefore very important.
The workplaces of electrical engineers are just as varied as the types of work they do. Electrical engineers may be found in the pristine lab environment of a fabrication plant, the offices of a consulting firm or on site at a mine. During their working life, electrical engineers may find themselves supervising a wide range of individuals including scientists, electricians, computer programmers and other engineers.
Electrical engineering has an intimate relationship with the physical sciences. For instance the physicist Lord Kelvin played a major role in the engineering of the first transatlantic telegraph cable. Conversely, the engineer Oliver Heaviside produced major work on the mathematics of transmission on telegraph cables.Electrical engineers are often required on major science projects. For instance, large particle accelerators such as CERN need electrical engineers to deal with many aspects of the project: from the power distribution, to the instrumentation, to the manufacture and installation of the superconducting electromagnets.