Tips for electrical engineering students

The purpose of this post is to offer some encouragement and suggestions for electrical engineering students; these are some of the things I wish I had known and dedicated more time to during school.  Although no matter where you are in your career, I hope you’ll find post helpful, if not, let me know how I can improve it!

In an attempt to keep it simple, I’m going to break it down into three separate topics, upon which I will expand in subsequent posts.

  • Tinkering
  • Joining a Team
  • Networking

It should be no surprise that all these three areas are often intertwined; nevertheless, I will consider these three topics individually.

Tinkering

Growing up, I remember having two key characteristics: a continual curiosity, and a love for building things.  I was always wanting to know how various things work, and why; I loved playing with LEGO and building random contraptions I came up with from scraps around the house.  I believe this is one of the reasons I became an engineer, because I want to know how and why things work.  Although having this curiosity early on is not the defining factor for becoming an engineer, it is certainly a trait that should be encouraged and practiced, especially by those in the field of engineering and science.  As cliche as it sounds, continual learning is vital to success as an engineer.

This curiosity and love for building things doesn’t always come naturally, and if you don’t feel like you posses these traits, don’t be discouraged!  These characteristics can be developed.  Let’s now define what I mean by tinkering.  The dictionary definition of the verb “tinker” is:

tin-ker |ˈti ng kər|

verb [ intrans. ]
attempt to repair or improve something in a casual or desultory (lacking a plan or purpose) way

While I agree with the dictionary definition, I would however also add that tinkering (according to my definition) involves building things; not just “attempting” to repair or improve something.  So what does this mean for an (electrical) engineer?  It means that you should build stuff!

Resistor Cube

A resitor cube that I made one afternoon, just because it looked cool.

But don’t stop there, also take things apart.  Even today, I love taking things apart.  Whenever something breaks, especially if it’s something electrical (the more complex the better) I love to take it apart in an attempt to identify the root cause of the failure.  I also enjoy seeing how different things are designed.  It’s interesting to look at how other engineers laid out their circuit boards, what ICs they used, what design choices were made.  Sometimes even when things aren’t broken, I will disassemble a device just out of sheer curiosity.  Unfortunately, when it comes time to put things back together, sometimes I have parts left over; but I like to console myself with the fact that I was able to improve on the design by using fewer parts to reassemble it.

For those that have never built a circuit on their own, it may seem like a daunting task.  How do I know what to connect where?  Will I electrocute myself?  Although I am writing this primarily for (electrical) engineers who should ideally know basic circuit theory, even non-engineers can have fun learning about electronics and circuits.  If you don’t already, you should get a basic understanding of circuits (i.e. resistance, capacitance, inductance).  For those that are completely new to circuits, have a look here, for those with some basic intuition and mathematical background, Wikipedia is a great resource.

Every electrical engineer should be able to…

Disclaimer: This is merely my opinion, and this is by no means a comprehensive list.  Let me know if you think there is something I left out.

Circuit Design

  • Read a datasheet and understand how to use a part
  • Design a circuit schematic
  • Design a PCB (Printed Circuit Board) layout from a schematic
  • Create a bill of materials and order the parts from a distributor
  • Analyze simple analog circuits by hand (e.g. using Kirchhoff’s circuit laws)
  • Simulate an analog circuit using SPICE (I prefer LTspice)
  • Know how to use a transistor and op-amp in a circuit

Signal Processing / Control

  • Design a simple (RC) analog low/high pass filter
  • Perform a FFT (e.g. using MATLAB or NumPy) and understand the results
  • Understand the difference between time domain and frequency domain
  • Implement a simple PID controller

Programming

  • Write basic embedded C/C++ (e.g. for an Arduino)
  • Know a scripting language (e.g. Python, MATLAB)

Miscellaneous

  • Support why a design decision was made (preferably with data)
  • Explain how technical things work to the average non-technical person
  • Prove Euler’s identity (I’ll admit I couldn’t do this off the top of my head right now)
Steering Wheel PCB Front

The dashboard for the 2009 Missouri S&T Formula SAE car, with lots of blinking LEDs (and a VFD display, not shown).

Becoming a better engineer

Let’s summarize, the three key characteristics that every engineer (tinkerer) should have are:

  1. A desire to learn.  Remember, Wikipedia is your friend.
  2. An urge to take things apart (whether or not they’re broken).
  3. A love for building things.

One key characteristic that separates successful engineers from the rest is that they can execute.  Many people can dream up some amazing contraptions, but actually building it is often a different story.  Often one of the best ways to solve a problem even if you don’t have it all planned out ahead of time, or if you’re unsure about how to approach the problem, is to just start building.  I find that often I can learn much more by just jumping into a project and starting and learning along the way, than if I would have spent more time planning.  Learning along the way, especially from your mistakes, can be especially important and educational.

They say practice makes perfect, and there is certainly significant evidence to support that claim.  Specifically work by Anders Ericsson, which is discussed in the excellent book: Talent is Overrated, which lends significant support to the theory that practice is what really distinguishes experts from the rest of us; but that’s another topic for another day.

If you’re at a loss for what to build, here are a few ideas:

  • Make a LED blink (e.g. with an Arduino)
  • Make a LED cube
  • Make a simple DC motor controller
  • Make an audio amplifier
  • Build a robot

They important thing is to just start.  You will make mistakes, but you will learn from them.  I’ve been involved in the hiring process for interviewing a few electrical engineers, and I have to admit, what really impressed me more than great grades and lots of involvement in various associations, were examples of some projects that the interviewee had made.  The important thing is to get out there and build something!

Here are a few useful resources for your adventure:

  • Sparkfun – a great resource for various electrical components and tutorials (especially their “Beginning Embedded Electronics” series)
  • Mouser and Digi-Key – my two favorite electronics distributors
  • Hack a Day – a great place to get some ideas and inspiration by seeing what others have done

Leave a comment if you have any questions/suggestions or would like some ideas.  Happy tinkering!

Share this Post
  • Twitter
  • HackerNews
  • del.icio.us
  • StumbleUpon
  • Facebook
  • Technorati
  • Google Bookmarks

15 Responses to : Tips for electrical engineering students

  1. Ralph Tan says:

    Hi im a current Electrical Engineering student. I really liked the information you posted here . I really enjoy building and improving things to make it better. I can honestly say that Im not one of the brightest students out there but i know for the fact that i will never give up. It is really challenging for me to understand engineering materials quickly.. it takes me a little more time compare to other students.. I put a lot of time and effort on a given course but at the end.. im not getting good grades. Im passing but not as great as other students. I really need a mentor. Due to my low grades, i feel bad on asking my professors to be one of my mentors due to the result Im having. I need help from a professional engineer like you…

  2. We are a bunch of volunteers and starting a new scheme in our community. Your website offered us with useful info to work on. You’ve done an impressive activity and our whole neighborhood will likely be grateful to you.

  3. Willaim says:

    I am in the same boat as Ralph. But, I am a 37 year old Sophomore/Junior level undergraduate student with no real mentor or guidance readily available. Don’t have a lot of time to make mistakes. I am also in need of a mentor or just someone to ask questions from time to time (initially a lot of questions). If you can’t help maybe you could put me in touch with someone who is looking for a ‘pet project’. Thanks….

  4. click here says:

    I Am Going To have to visit again when my course load lets up – nonetheless I am taking your Feed so i could read your web blog offline. Thanks.

  5. Chris says:

    You make some really great points – thank you! I am a junior in a 4-year program and luckily I am indeed able to check off a number of things off your suggested list! I am curious what your advice would be concerning employment/experience opportunities. I spent this summer doing physics research with a professor – we did some curriculum development stuff for her modern physics classes. I was also able to land an internship at a large company for the school year and next summer if I would like, but it’s my 3rd day and it already is quite obvious that I am hardly utilized. It is frustrating doing nothing, but I know that it is a good opportunity simply as a resume builder. Do you have any advice? What would you recommend for a junior level student who wants to gain experience in order to be a desirable candidate to employers when he/she graduates?

    • David Erdos says:

      A few things that are very valuable for employers are the following:

      - Communications skills – can you clearly articulate you thoughts and viewpoints
      - Bring some examples of projects you’ve done in the past, pictures, videos, or the actual electronics. In particular projects that you’ve done outside of school
      - Be proactive in contacting potential employers

  6. Chris says:

    I enjoyed reading your article – I think you make some really great points! I am a junior EE major in a 4 year program, and I am curious as to what advice you would give someone in my position concerning employment opportunities/experience… I spent this summer doing research with a professor doing some curriculum development stuff, so I have some experience doing stuff in a academic environment. I also recently landed an internship with a large company, but it is my 3rd day and it is quite obvious that I am hardly utilized. It is very frustrating having nothing to do. Any advice in my situation? I know for sure that this company will be a good resume booster so I can’t complain too much. I just want to enter the workforce as a desirable candidate in 2 more years!

    • David Erdos says:

      Hi Chris,
      It looks like you have a good start, undergraduate research is looked upon favorably by most employers, and is often treated as equivalent with an internship. I’ve done three internships myself, and even if they can seem boring at times, it’s up to you to make the best of it. I recommend setting up informational interviews with people throughout the company to learn about what they do, what career path they took to get there, etc. Also, if there are people in your group doing interesting things, ask if you can help them. One of the important aspects of an internship is to allow you to get to know the company, and likewise, give the company an opportunity to get to know you. During my internships I frequently set up informational interviews with managers and engineers throughout the company in various departments that I had an interest in.

      Regarding what specifically to work on, that depends on what aspect of electrical engineering you’re most interested in. Sales? Detailed Design? Systems Engineering? If you’re interested in actual circuit design and designing real hardware, then do some projects in your free time, if they help your employer, that’s even better. I’ve been on the hiring side of things, and if I see a candidate bring in some circuits that they’ve built and programmed, that’s always a major plus. You can look on hackaday.com for ideas, and you can just copy somebody’s project if you don’t have any ideas yourself. You will learn a lot building a simple microcontroller controlled project.

      I hope this helps, let me know if you have any other questions.

      David

  7. sujitha says:

    Thank you sir.I am electrical student(Btech) present.I am not satisfying with my academic syllabus which concentrates more on theoretical views but i want you know their applications in real life. Plz sir suggest me and guide me with your valuable suggestion.

  8. Parama Roy says:

    I am planning to go for EEE. Thanks for your suggestions.

  9. atp101 says:

    Having an interview for an electrical job attachment, its gona be on site.could you give me a few tips,and what’s the difference between electrical and electronic

    • David Erdos says:

      Sometimes there is no difference, especially in the US. However, in other parts of the world, an electronics engineer would be one that deals with low-power circuits like microcontrollers, signal processing, filters, etc. and an electrical engineer would be one that deals with power transmission, motors and drives, etc. But typically in the US both are called electrical engineers, although that might depend on the school or the locale as well.

Leave a Reply to sujitha Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>