Viewpoints: Time to Separate Engineering and Computer Science?

By Chris Brantley

The September 2018 edition of ASEE’s Prism magazine contains an interesting article by Paul Basken, which frames the question whether it’s time for U.S. universities to split their engineering and computer science programs into independent colleges or departments.

The crux of the argument for the split is the comparative difference in student interest and employment opportunities in computing, with the number of computer science majors more than tripling since 2006, coupled with growing interest in computer training by non-majors. Schools that have also created specialized computer programs tailored to support different academic departments could also benefit by unifying them into a single school, with the potential for increased efficiency, coordinated faculty recruiting, and improved responsiveness to industry needs. An integrated computing school or department would also have expanded opportunities for fund-raising and research grants, as well as an easier path toward establishing an institutional reputation.

Of course, clearing the path for independent computing schools or departments comes at the expense of traditional engineering and computer science departments, who would be giving up what for many has become their most popular major. It could adversely affect students whose areas of study closely integrates computing and engineering. Some engineering schools are also effectively using introductory computer courses to draw students into their engineering majors. As for reputation, defenders of the status quo also note that several schools, including University of Michigan, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, University of Texas at Austin and University of Maryland, have successfully built highly regarded computer science programs within their engineering or natural sciences colleges.

Basken notes two additional barriers for colleges and universities considering a change, the first being the current shortage of computer science faculty. The other is increasing pressure from industry for engineering and computer graduates with an appreciation of the humanities and social sciences, which may be harder to deliver in a more specialized and focused Computer Science school or department model.

The Prism article does not attempt to answer the question it raises, which is of particular interest to IEEE because of the close affinity between electrical/electronics and computing. So what do you think? Should computing goes its own way on campus, and separate itself from the engineering department or college? Or is there a better way to address the needs of computing both as an academic discipline and as a rapidly growing, high demand field without deconstructing the classic engineering and computer science department or college?

At another level, there is an interesting question as to whether and how IEEE should adapt to the changes that result as more schools work to strengthen their computing programs and separate them from their engineering schools? There are administrative questions, such as how would IEEE student branches work on a divided campus? But more importantly, how would the increasing separation of engineering and computing affect IEEE membership, especially since current member data suggests IEEE’s U.S. membership is tilting more and more toward the EE-side and less toward computing, despite the fact that industry demand for computer grads continues to grow.

Let us know what you think.

On 15 Oct., MIT announced plans to create the Stephen A. Schwartzman College of Computing, backed by a $1 billion investment and charged with providing an institutional focus on AI. According to MIT President L. Rafael Reif, the goal of the new College is to serve as an interdisciplinary hub to “educate the bilinguals of the future” who can bring the techniques of modern computing to the fields of biology, chemistry, politics, history, linguistics and other fields. From the announcement, it was not immediately clear how the new College would relate to, or impact the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computing in MIT’s School of Engineering.

Chris Brantley is IEEE-USA’s managing director.


Guest Contributor

IEEE-USA is an organizational unit of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, Inc. (IEEE), created in 1973 to support the career and public policy interests of IEEE’s U.S. members. IEEE-USA is primarily supported by an annual assessment paid by U.S. IEEE Members.

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  1. It is interesting that there is no mention of any Computer Engineering program. For schools that have one, how would Computer Engineering fit in the mix? Currently at Southern Illinois University Computer Engineering program is in the same department as the Electrical Engineering program and the Computer Science program is in the process of being relocated to the College of Engineering.

  2. Many other major Research Universities have all ready successfully established Colleges of Information Technology years ago, what is so important to make a big deal about MIT finally getting around to doing the same thing? As to the impact of separating IT fields from EE was addressed over 10 years ago by IEEE, so any negative impact on membership has been caused by the volunteers and members ignoring that change, and not trying to recruit potential IT and other potential members.

  3. As an EE who has done electronics design, verification and manufacturing test, I’ve written my share of code. I’ve also taught HS math and physics.
    A couple of thoughts:
    Does CS differ from computer engineering in substance?
    How is this separation different (or like) the separation of electrical engineering and physics? How is it like (or unlike) the separation of materials science from mechanical engineering or structural engineering or semiconductor engineering?
    And finally, and most importantly:
    Does the separation (or lack thereof) really encourage graduates to be more well-rounded?
    Using myself as an example, taking courses not on the engineering curriculum was limited by finances and time. I took some music courses (at the far end of campus) as respite/relaxation. BUT, in quarters which required the full amount of FT credits (FT was 12-18 quarter-credits, and FT was a single tuition amount), music had to drop off my radar.
    If we want graduates to be well-rounded with current events, philosophy, (name your preference), it has to be accessible in BOTH money and time. That is the real issue, not separation (or not) of two related subjects.

  4. At the University of Texas at El Paso, IEEE (EE) and IEEE (CS) and IEEE (WIE) are separate entities meeting separately with separate agendas which we see as no different than IEEE having Computer Society, Power, etc. I personally think it is tribalism and should change but I am very much in the minority and therefore yield to the majority.

  5. This is a bit funny to me. In the mid-70s, I received a BSEE and BSCS from Kansas State University. The Electrical Engineering department was obviously in the College of Engineering, whereas the Computer Science was in the College of Arts and Sciences. This was long before the days of Computer Engineering degrees and I originally intended to use these to degrees to help pursue a career in computer engineering.

    Since there were two different colleges within the same university, one would think it would be fairly easy to work out the class schedule so the correct classes could be taken to fulfill the requirements of both colleges — this was not the case. In my opinion, there were wasted classes to fulfill the College of Arts and Science requirements. The total hours needed to obtain both degrees was 150 hours, but maybe that is not that bad.

    I can’t speak to having both degrees coming from the Engineering College, since I never experienced that situation, even though they have been that way for decades. I think it makes more sense having them in one college, but maybe the requirements should take two paths, one for the engineers and the other for the non-engineers.

  6. As a retired software engineer and brother in law of a civil engineer, let me compare this to problems faced by civil engineers. If a better form of concrete or steel is needed by civil engineers for construction, who do they asks for help? Engineers or scientists? we could apply the same logic to separating computer science from software engineering. Which department would do the research for a better algorithm or design? Engineers or scientists?

    From another perspective science can be viewed as an application of mathematics and logic to express fundamental natural phenomena, gravity, rates of chemical and biological reactions, etc. Engineering can be viewed as an application of mathematical, logic, and scientific principles to solve real world problems.

    So I ask are we trying to discover basic principles in computing, then it is computer science or even data science. Or are we trying to apply the principles of computer science to create a new design or new algorithm, then it is software engineering. I also realize that fundamentally new design or algorithm may sit on the fence between science and engineering? The boundary has always been a gray area.

  7. They were always separate when I was at the Uni.

    Then the engineering department decided they wanted in on the act and added computer engineering. Fair enough, but then I guess from the article that they kept expanding.

    So where does SYSTEMS Engineering fit now? Most schools don’t have anything related to that specialty; and even though it uses a lot of computer knowledge as a part of most real life systems, it is way past programming but would could expertise from database and other CS subject areas, while not usually be expert in those areas.

    GMU combines SE with OR which is probably the best fit if a Uni doesn’t have a totally separate SE curriculum.

    How long will it take all the schools to realise that SYSTEMS Engineering is the most important central core of ALL engineering not just electric related flavors.

  8. IEEE Members,

    I have to say something bluntly. In business as in life, things change and to not change is to die (at least slowly or partially). Aggressive “doing” is the way businesses thrive.

    The name “Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers” is far outdated. Our organization BIRTHED the computer by being the foremost channel for knowledge exchange during the ages of the earliest forms of computing. We created it. It is now the biggest form of electronic device in the world. We indirectly birthed all these organizations with the letters “comput” in their name. To let them own the word Computer is to choose to die as an organization, which is ethically wrong and in direct conflict with our duties as members of this organization (as it would be in any organization).

    The above logic should help many of us realize that IEEE can be fluid. We are the core technologists and technologies of computing, as well as the highest level of AI and computer science (look at our leading conferences, publications, and societies dedicated thereto).

    We should choose to incorporate some word that starts with “Comput” into the name of our organization. A radical change, I know, as my family has been a part of IEEE for Generations. But, as a practitioner and constant student of technology businesses, to stagnate is to die. Our non-profit business and community deserves the best from us going forward: we may assume the role of Inventors AND Dedicated Experts of Computers.

    Any ideas for new names? Institute of Electrical and Computer Engineers?

  9. yes CS and CE are totally different problems although related to some extent
    one addresses the building of the hardware the other the building of the software
    unfortunately the hard/soft wares do interact with each other to various degrees depending on specifics

  10. Wake up! As one commenter said, this is already being done. At Georgia Tech, the College of Computing was founded in 1990, next to Engineering, Science, and others. Other schools have followed; still other schools have taken a step in this direction, but within engineering, with a Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering and a Department of Computer Science and Engineering. They typically co-administer the Computer Engineering degree. Separating into two colleges need not lead to silos: at Georgia Tech, although ECE is in Engineering, CS and CE faculty sit side by side based on interest areas in the Klaus Advanced Computing Building.

    There is a lot of interest in establishing College of Computing; I know of one major university considering doing just that. The Computing Research Association (CRA) biannual 2016 Snowbird meeting had a heavily-attended session on the topic “Schools and Colleges of Computing”; see

    The author states, without support, “The other is increasing pressure from industry for engineering and computer graduates with an appreciation of the humanities and social sciences, which may be harder to deliver in a more specialized and focused Computer Science school or department model.” This is nonsense, there is nothing inherent in a CS degree limiting a student’s ability to take humanities and social sciences courses.

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