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ECE M.Eng: 50 Years and Counting

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

“It was a no-brainer.” That’s how several electrical engineering majors reacted 50 years ago when they found out they could opt to earn a master’s of engineering degree (M.Eng EE) in only one semester.

They were the beneficiaries of a sweeping change the College of Engineering made after the fall of 1960. The college replaced the five-year bachelor program with a heavier, pre-professional four-year curriculum, and began offering a separate master’s degree that could be completed with 30 credits.

For the class caught in the transition, the administration made an exception: Students could earn an M.Eng EE by applying 15 credits from their fifth year to the degree and taking 15 more credits the subsequent semester. For many, it was an easy decision. Seventy-eight students opted in.

“It was a no-brainer to get a master’s degree for 15 credits,” remembers Arthur Levitan BEE ’65, M.Eng EE ’66.
“Whereas other master’s programs might have taken a year or two years, we had paid our dues by being there for five years,” recalls Robert Gray BEE ’65, M.Eng EE ’66.

“The transition was totally seamless. The familiarity of the campus, the faculty and the courses were a big plus,” said Tom Pazis BEE ’65, M.Eng EE ’66.

Fifty years later, some 3,258 engineers have earned an electrical and computer engineering M.Eng degree from Cornell. They include key industry players such as Justin Rattner B.S. ’70, M.Eng ’72, former CTO of Intel, and Lee Wang B.S. ’97, M.Eng ’98, COO of WeddingWire and co-founder of Blackboard, Inc. Although the M.Eng program’s curriculum and student population have shifted significantly over time, the degree still prepares engineers for work in industry and gives them a leg up in the job market. “The original intent was to increase the depth of knowledge of people who went into industry,” said Peter Jessel BEE ’65, M.S. ’66, director of the M.Eng program. “And that’s still what it is today.”

The M.Eng was and still is a rare beast in engineering higher education, says Clif Pollock, ECE director and the Ilda and Charles Lee Professor of Engineering. Many universities offer a master’s of science degree as a stepping stone to a Ph.D., but no Cornell peer has a one-year, 30-credit terminal degree that offers students a master’s project and the freedom to choose courses to fit their needs, Pollock says.

From the beginning, M.Eng coursework was customizable and cutting-edge. Bruce Wagner BEE ’65, M.Eng EE ’66, remembers taking courses in the new field of digital logic with the famed electrical and computer engineering professor, Hwa C. Torng M.S. ’58, Ph.D. ’60, who would later go on to develop high-speed microprocessors. When Wagner visited Bell Labs for an interview during January of his master’s year, he saw researchers working on the same projects he was learning about in Torng’s class. “When I told them I was learning all about it, they were excited. Coming from Cornell, with that right-up-to-date education, was big for them,” Wagner said.

Decades later, Meg Walraed-Sullivan B.S. ‘03, M.Eng EE ’04, tailored her M.Eng program to take mostly computer engineering classes—a move that helped in her decision to get a Ph.D. in computer science. She credits Associate Professor David Delchamps and Senior Lecturer Bruce Land with encouraging her to stay in the field, she said. “They really looked out for me and were in my corner. You’d expect that at any school, but they went above and beyond.”

Like customizable, state-of-the-art courses, the master’s project has been a bedrock component of the M.Eng since its inception. Students work alone or in groups during the three- to seven-credit required course to define an unstructured technical problem and create and execute a solution. Through the mid-1970s, candidates with sufficient design experience in industry at the time they entered the M.Eng program could convert three credits of a design project for three credits of additional advanced course work. “By the late ’70s that idea lost favor,” said John Belina B.S. ’74, M.Eng EE ’75, former M.Eng program director.

Today, 80 percent of the projects stem from faculty research. Recent projects have ranged from real-time face detection and tracking to a wearable, wireless motion-sensing system for hip rehabilitation and a portable micro-hydro system aimed at providing inexpensive power for rural India.

Master’s projects give students a chance to demonstrate their ability to think on their feet. “Recruiters just love it,” Pollock said. “On a project, something breaks or doesn’t arrive, a piece of technology fails, your teammate gets sick. It’s real life. In a homework assignment, those things aren’t going to happen.”

The projects also often help graduate students figure out a career path. In her project, Sarah Fischell B.S. ’78, M.Eng EE ’79, worked with geology faculty to do unattended data recording for earthquakes in New Guinea’s mountains. At the time, the state of the art was low-capacity digital tape. She analyzed the options for data compression and detection, rather than simply what recorder they should use. “That experience taught me I was happy at this more macro level, where I was deciding the approach we were going to use,” she said. Fischell went on to use that big-picture thinking while working in systems engineering at AT&T and Bell Labs.

The M.Eng became so valuable to corporations that several began programs in the late 1960s and early 1970s through which they paid employees to get the degree. “They wanted to scoop up smart people out of the best engineering colleges,” said Fischell, who was hired as an undergraduate by Bell Labs, which offered to pay for her to stay at Cornell and receive her M.Eng. “The program was a tremendous incentive. I was dying to take all these computer engineering classes that just didn’t fit into my undergraduate program. And I got to take them,” Fischell said.

She wasn’t among the first women to earn the degree, but female M.Eng students were still a rarity in the 1970s. “Professors didn’t quite know how to deal with girls—not that there was any special way to deal with girls—but they didn’t know that at the time,” Fischell remembers. Today the gender landscape is much different. This fall, more than one-third of the M.Eng class is female, with 70 women and 127 men enrolled.

The student population has changed even more dramatically in terms of nationality and undergrad background. Back in 1966, all M.Eng EE students were men who had graduated from Cornell. Today, about 80 percent of M.Eng students come from other universities, and about 70 percent are foreign students, most from China and India.

It’s an inverse proportion to the economy, said Jessel. When the economy is strong, Cornell graduates can get a good job after receiving their bachelor’s degree. On the other hand, the M.Eng offers the cachet of a Cornell engineering degree and the quality year of post-graduate education. And given the global economy, international families are less concerned about the cost, because students typically do not earn as high a salary in their home countries after earning their undergraduate degree as they would in the United States, according to Jessel. “They will invest in their children to whatever extent is necessary,” he said.

The M.Eng program has adjusted the curriculum in subtle ways to acclimatize foreign students to the Western way of doing business. Asian students are typically less likely to challenge instructors, engage in question and answer sessions and participate in class. That requires instructors to emphasize classroom participation. “Some of the value of a Cornell or Western education is to have that interactional dialogue. Otherwise students are not getting the full benefit,” Jessel said.

Interaction with professors extends beyond the classroom, said Shijie Ding, M.Eng ’13, a graduate of a top research university in China. “I had professors who scheduled one-on-one sessions with every student, and we got better understanding of the course and more detailed suggestions or critiques for our projects,” he said. M.Eng students also get the benefit of learning from their international peers, noted Ding, whose lab partners came from India and had worked in industry prior to enrolling in the M.Eng. “We complimented each other’s knowledge base. I learned a lot about what their jobs were like and what they think of the industry, and we got to know each other’s cultures,” he said.

In 2005, the department took a hard look at curriculum and, based on industry demands, decided to further emphasize professional issues such as communication, team work, project planning and management and deadlines, on top of the rigorous courses. Some courses, such as “Managing and Leading in Organizations” and “Managing Operations,” are offered through the Johnson Graduate School of Management. The updated curriculum catalyzed a significant increase in applications, which has continued to grow annually, Pollock said. This year’s class numbers 143 students, nearly twice the enrollment in 1966. An additional 54 students are staying for a third semester, an increasingly common practice.

Thanks to this combination of technical and practical skills, the placement rate among M.Eng graduates has remained high since the early years. Even in 2013, when the job market was rough, about 75 percent of M.Eng graduates had jobs before they left Cornell. The fact that most were foreign nationals makes that rate even more impressive, Pollock said, because it means their employers were willing to manage visas and other documentation required to allow them to work. “The fact that they’re getting jobs means they’re a pretty good product,” Pollock said.

During the next 50 years, the M.Eng program will continue to evolve with technology, Jessel said. For example, an increasing number of students are taking classes online, and the M.Eng could shift toward more distance-learning. But much would be lost, Jessel said. “One of the objectives is to teach graduate students the problem solving skills and group skills that you don’t teach undergraduates, and if it’s only through online courses, that won’t be delivered.

“What we teach now is very different, how we teach is very different” compared to the first classes in 1966, Jessel said. “But why we’re doing it has remained pretty much the same.”

—Susan Kelley

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