Students work on engineering projects on a long lab table
Students create and learn in the new engineering lab space

UC Davis ECE Welcomes Students Back This Fall

Quick Summary

  • Largest first-year class in 15 years returns after Covid-19: instructors seek to retain the best of what worked for teaching during the pandemic

UC Davis’ electrical and computer engineering (ECE) department just opened its doors to 300 students, the largest first-year class in the past 15 years. A virtual fall welcome event held on Sept 21st included talks from professors and administrators and a panel presentation from current students.

Students work on engineering projects on a long lab table
New engineering lab space

“The students have got lots to look forward to this year,” says ECE Vice Chair, Prof. Josh Hihath. “In addition to our return to in-person activities, we’ve also been renovating the instructional labs in Kemper Hall. We’ve drastically increased the lab bench space in a couple of our undergraduate labs. Everything looks a lot more modern, with new benches, new computers, and new electronic test equipment.” The lab renovation was partially supported by the alumni donations from Give Day, including an extremely generous $25K individual gift towards the labs.

These instructional labs can fit 64 people at full capacity but the department is choosing to cap capacity at 40 for now because of lingering worries about coronavirus. Over the past year, while UCD’s entire educational programs were virtual, the department shipped out over a thousand lab kits so that students could participate in remote labs. Now, students can take part in newly designed lab spaces, creatively birthed out of the shelter-in-place period.

During the pandemic, some classes switched to simulation-based workshops instead of traditional labs, and others included hands-on activities through take-home lab kits which students could work with at home. ECE professors set up chats online where students could talk with each other to solve problems and also troubleshoot during virtual office hours.

“Our teaching assistants overcame many challenges and made a swift shift to online based discussion and virtual labs, and they helped students to adjust. The students seemed to appreciate being able to work on their own schedules,” said Hihath. All lab classes are now back in person, but the courses have evolved to give students more flexibility by allowing them to bring equipment home and work on it there. “We’re aiming to combine the best teaching methods from the pandemic and pre-pandemic times,” Hihath said. The department will further leverage a $50K donation from Texas Instruments and $13K from Micron Technology to strengthen the undergraduate education.

The department is especially excited about the EEC 1 class, a project-based course introducing students to the basics of electrical and computer engineering. “They’re going to get to build real systems here,” Hihath said. “Everyone builds an audio spectrum analyzer. It has a microphone and microcontroller that translates frequencies of sound into patterns of LED light.” The department specifically created this class for first-year students, to get them interested in engineering right away.

Also with first-year (and transfer students) in mind, Hihath offers advice to incoming students.

“First of all, welcome to the UC Davis community! Getting into the university’s prestigious program means that UC Davis believes in you and that you can do this.”

He reminds students that engineering impacts all levels of society and gives students a chance to solve real problems.

“Take advantage of research opportunities. Make sure you’re handling your classes first, keep your grades up, and join some technical clubs and research activities. Go check the departmental website, find a lab you like, and contact the professor! Many faculty members are very excited to have someone come in to work in their labs. Every year I have undergraduate students join my lab.”

He acknowledges that especially with UCD’s fast-paced quarter system, students can feel overwhelmed. “I always tell students, if you’re having a hard time, please reach out. Let our faculty and advising staff know you’re struggling. Trust me, you’re not the only one, and we are here to help.”

Hihath especially enjoys the spring ECExpo, where both undergraduate and graduate students get to present their own research to their fellow students, alumni and industrial affiliates. In EEC 105, students work on their own design projects and can exhibit what they design at the Expo.

He highlights what makes UC Davis’ ECE department a uniquely positive experience for students. “We’re a great community. There’s wonderful interaction between students and faculty, and project-based classes so students can get a hands-on education, whether they’re a first-year student, sophomore, junior, or senior. And we combine both theory and practical engineering knowledge in the classroom.”