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Computer Engineering Overview

Computer Engineering is a relatively new discipline, having evolved over the last decade in response to the expanding demand for the applications of computers in government, defense, industry and our
daily lives. The Computer Engineering program at Vanderbilt focuses on three basic subdisciplines:  Embedded systems,  Computer systems and networks, and  Intelligent systems and robotics.

Embedded Systems

The discipline:  There are billions of computers in the world around us and this number is increasing daily. However, traditional computers like desktops and laptops make up less than 2% of existing computing devices. The rest of them are found in cell phones, cars, MP3 players, high definition televisions, microwave ovens, robots, and even tennis shoes. These are examples of "embedded" systems, which include computer processors and other hardware elements built into physical systems in order to improve functionality and ease of use. Embedded systems are ubiquitous in handheld devices, telecommunications, household appliances, automobiles, aircraft, medical equipment, and many other domains. The design of these systems involves understanding both computer hardware and software as well as the challenges of the physical environment in which the embedded system must operate (for example, a car engine). Training in this area prepares the future generation of computer engineers to will design and build such systems as well as to discover new devices that can transform the way we interact with the physical world.

The training:  Students studying embedded systems learn about hardware and software design principles and techniques required to analyze and build these systems. Particular topics include the design and use of hardware devices, from field-programmable gate arrays and VLSI circuits through dedicated signal processors, to embedded microcontrollers. Software training includes real-time system programming (including real-time operating systems), model-based development, and system analysis, as well as modeling, control and simulation of dynamic systems, and digital and analog electronics for embedded computer systems. Classroom lectures are combined with laboratory experiences and practical class projects. Additional opportunities are available through a number of research projects that are being conducted by the faculty in this area.

Your future:  Computer engineers working on embedded systems design and build all the "cool stuff" that one encounters daily: iPhones and iPods, car navigation systems, hybrid automobiles, high-definition televisions, domestic robotics systems and kitchen appliances, but also the systems that make the economy work, like real-time communication networks, plant automation systems, railroad safety systems, air traffic control, and industrial instrumentation tools. Graduates of the program will have a wide variety of opportunities in industry and other fields of the economy. Embedded systems engineers are in strong demand by many companies in the US and world-wide (especially in the aerospace, communications, defense and automotive industries).

Computer Systems and Networks

The discipline:  The World Wide Web (WWW) and the Internet have become an integral part of our lives. We take for granted applications such as online shopping, web searching, content sharing, internet telephony, travel planning, media distribution and many others. The WWW is also the primary medium for large-scale business-to-business transactions. The resilience and performance of the Web and in turn the Internet impacts the global economy. Underlying these multitudes of applications are computer systems (including operating systems and hardware), networking technologies (e.g., wireless WiFi, Bluetooth, ZigBee, Ethernet), networking protocols (which define the rules and data formats used by the communicating entities), and middleware (which is the software glue that binds applications to the underlying platforms). The purpose of this area is to train the future generation of computer engineers to design, develop, analyze and validate the next generation of distributed applications as well as the computer systems and networking technologies that host these applications.

The training:  Students studying in this area learn about the actual machinery underlying the technologies such as the Web and Internet. In particular, they learn about:

  1. Computer architectures, including the recent trend in multi core and cell processor architectures, which is revolutionizing applications ranging from Playstations to supercomputing used in weather prediction or hurricane tracking.
  2. Operating systems design principles, such as those found in Windows and Linux.
  3. Networking technologies, such as wireless local area networks, body area networks, Internet.
  4. Networking protocols, which are the languages used by communicating entities to talk to each other, e.g. HTTP, TCP/IP.
  5. Networking applications, such as peer-to-peer systems, video and audio streaming systems.
  6. Trustworthy computing principles, which are used to develop secure and reliable systems that can protect companies from economic loss and protect individuals from identity theft.

Your future:  Computer engineers who study computer systems and networks find their jobs in many different industry verticals, such as information technology, healthcare, business, finance, telecommunications, aerospace and defense. They apply their knowledge to build the next generation of sophisticated distributed applications, such as intelligent transportation systems, distributed games, large-scale healthcare management systems, inventory tracking systems, air traffic control, railroad and truck scheduling, and many others. Students wishing to pursue research opportunities can find research topics in areas such as the development of novel algorithms, protocols and architectures to make applications inherently efficient, high performance and trustworthy, and overcoming existing technical barriers governing bandwidth and security.

Intelligent Systems and Robotics

The discipline:  The areas of intelligent systems and robotics often incorporate components of Artificial Intelligence (AI). AI is the study of intelligence and the emulation of intelligent behaviors within non-biological agents such as computers. AI is aimed at the development of methods to solve challenging real-world problems that have no obvious solution via equations, formulas or traditional computer algorithms. Modern AI approaches involve "intelligent" search techniques across landscapes of alternative solutions that are based on knowledge obtained from human experts in a given field. By using novel artificially intelligent search techniques in conjunction with a variety of knowledge bases, systems often demonstrate behaviors that humans are accustomed to and expect. For example, systems have been developed to play competitive chess against humans. More recently
because of the advances in hardware and software, AI programs embedded into larger systems have provided invaluable functionality for monitoring and controlling the behavior of these systems in a way that exceeds the performance of previous control approaches. The Sony Aibo robotic dog is one example of an agent embedded with artificial intelligence that emulates behaviors expected of dogs.

The training:  Specialists in intelligent systems and robotics build a foundation in traditional methods and approaches to artificial intelligence, and then go beyond standard computer engineering preparation to include such areas as control systems (to understand the dynamics of linkages between computers and mechanical systems), image processing and robot vision and robot manipulators. One the software side, they study not only AI but also intelligent control techniques such as fuzzy and neural controls and sensory processing. Other opportunities include the use of multi-agent systems to deploy robotic teams and the development of game environments and learning environments for science and mathematics.

Your future:  As machines and devices become increasingly intelligent in terms of performance, the demand in industry for students with in-depth knowledge in intelligent systems and artificial intelligence will continue to rise. Undergraduate education in intelligent systems and artificial intelligence also provide an excellent background for research and advanced degrees in Computer Science, Robotics and Systems Engineering as well as Computer Engineering.