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What is Electrical Engineering?

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Electrical Engineering deals with the study and application of electricity, electronics, and electromagnetism in all of their forms.

Whenever you go to flip a light switch in your house or even check the time on your smartphone, it took a series of electrical engineers to make that happen. The everyday things that we take for granted – like being able to turn on a light when it’s dark – are actually the result of hundreds of years worth of work by dedicated engineers.

In the grand scheme of academic study, electrical engineering is fairly new. But in its short life, it has become an absolutely essential field in providing us the everyday comforts we enjoy.

Keep reading to learn more about the history of electrical engineering and why it is so important to our society that dedicated students continue to study and excel in this challenging and diverse field.

Why does the world need Electrical Engineering? Why Study It?

English physician, physicist, and philosopher William Gilbert is credited with introducing the term “electricity.” Although he did not spark the scientific interest in electricity that already existed, he could be called the first electrical engineer. Following in his footsteps in the 19th and early 20th centuries were such luminaries as Michael Faraday, Nikola Tesla, and Thomas Edison.

As technology progressed and electricity became much more widespread – from the electric telegraph to the lightbulb – so did the demand for people who studied and could work in this new field. At first, electrical engineers studied within the physics department at schools like Cornell and MIT, but soon they had their own programs. The first electrical engineering department in the U.S. was founded at the University of Missouri in 1886.

Electrical engineers in the U.S. today would probably be hard pressed to find a job where they work with telegraphs, but there are myriad other applications for this specialized knowledge in the modern world. Electrical engineers make it possible for us to enjoy many of the modern comforts we have in the U.S., from smartphones and tablets to public utilities.

What does one learn in an Electrical Engineering Program?

Electrical engineering programs are certainly not exactly the same across the board, but there are some basic topics that all programs cover. Undergraduate electrical engineering students will study mathematics, physics, and electronics as well as the intersection of these three main categories. Math courses in an electrical engineering program will likely include calculus, differential equations, and linear algebra, while physics courses will be at a more basic level. Electronics courses will cover circuitry, electromagnetism, and semiconductors.

Students that earn a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering can certainly go on to have fulfilling and lucrative careers. Still, many choose to pursue an advanced education with a master’s degree or PhD in electrical engineering. Graduate programs cover the same core areas at a more advanced level and may have more emphasis on computing and computer engineering.

Branches of Electrical Engineering

There are a number of sub disciplines related to electrical engineering, including:

  • Power engineering: deals specifically with electricity as a utility, including the generation, transmission, and distribution thereof
  • Control engineering: deals with the design and implementation of controllers of various systems from commercial airlines to jet propulsion
  • Electronic engineering: deals specifically with the design of circuits and their components such as resistors, capacitors, and inductors. This branch of electrical engineering was previously known as “radio engineering.”
  • Microelectronics: deals with the design and creation of very small circuits, often requiring chemical fabrication.
  • Signal processing engineering: deals with the analysis and manipulation of both analog and digital signals.
  • Telecommunications: deals with the transmission of data across a channel, including coaxial cables, optical fiber, or space.
  • Instrumentation engineering: deals with the design of measurement devices such as those used on aircraft, involves physics heavily
  • Computer engineering: deals not with computer programming but with the design of the electronic components of computer and computer systems.

The Present and Future of Electrical Engineering

Electrical engineering is just as important and exciting a field as it was when Nikola Tesla was still struggling to understand the true power of electricity. Though it is easy to look at the news and assume that computer programming, design, and mobile applications are the only important technologies to pursue, none of those things would be possible without the help of electrical engineers. Even the car company that bears Tesla’s name would not be able to exist without the field of electrical engineering and a team of people who understood how to make an electric car work, and how to maximize its battery life (still an area in need of further engineering innovation).

The future of electrical engineering work is likely to be both large and small. Electrical engineers will be able to choose whether they want to focus on the intricate circuits that make up personal computing devices or the huge instruments that control spacecraft, and even entire power grids.

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