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!