To continue fueling technological advancement and innovation, it is vital for universities to effectively train new generations of electrical and electronic engineers, equipping them with all the skills they need to excel in their future careers.
Engineering is a rapidly changing field, thus it is important to provide students with both technical skills and other abilities that can assist them in continuously learning new things, adapting to changes, and tackling unexpected problems.
The University of Cambridge is one of the top universities in Europe for electrical and electronic engineering studies. Prospective Cambridge students can choose from a wide variety of undergraduate and graduate courses, including both general programs and specialised ones.
The electrical engineering courses offered at Cambridge are designed to provide students with a general knowledge of all primary engineering-related fields, while also giving them the skills necessary to excel in their specific areas of interest. During their studies, students are asked to carry out their own research, which could span across a variety of topics.
For instance, Cambridge’s electrical engineering division is currently carrying out fundamental and high-impact research investigating the development of electronic components, with a specific focus on creating integrated solutions for nanotechnology, sensing, energy generation, energy conversion, displays, and communications.
Professor Andrew Flewitt has been teaching modules related to electronic engineering at the University of Cambridge since 2002. In this interview with Electronics Point, he discusses some of the strengths and unique characteristics of engineering courses at Cambridge, while also offering his valuable advice for young people who are thinking to pursue a career in electrical or electronic engineering.
Professor Andrew Flewitt, head of the electrical engineering division at the University of Cambridge.
Ingrid Fadelli: First and foremost, could you tell us a little bit about yourself, your background and your current role at Cambridge University?
Andrew Flewitt: I am a Professor of Electronic Engineering at Cambridge University. Cambridge is unusual in that it has a single Engineering Department comprised of six Divisions and each specialises in an aspect of engineering. I am currently Head of the Electrical Engineering Division. I originally studied for a BSc in Physics at Birmingham University and in 1994 I moved to Cambridge to pursue a PhD in scanning tunneling microscopy of amorphous silicon, where I have had the pleasure to remain ever since, being appointed to a lectureship in 2002. I am also a Fellow and Director of Studies in Engineering at Sidney Sussex College.
IF: What inspired you to enter the electrical engineering field and particularly to work in academia/become a faculty member?
AF: I first became interested in electronics whilst studying GCSE Physics. I remember being introduced to logic gates and wondering how they worked. I was fortunate that one of my Physics teachers started GCSE Electronics classes and I was able to take these classes alongside my A-levels, which allowed me to explore this area further. One of the reasons why I chose to study physics at Birmingham was that they allowed students to take Electrical and Electronic Engineering-related modules in their final year. Once I was offered the opportunity to take a PhD course at Cambridge, I found myself drifting more in that direction and I started investigating the growth of thin film electronic materials. Since then, I have found that being an academic has given me the opportunity to study the fundamentals of how we can engineer future generations of electronic devices.
IF: How was your professional journey so far, when were you offered to work at the University of Cambridge and what encouraged you to accept?
AF: I was appointed to a Lectureship at the University of Cambridge in 2002, specifically in Microelectromechanical Systems (MEMS). At the time, MEMS devices were still rather niche and this position gave me the opportunity to set my own research agenda in this emerging field. Since then, my research in this area has focused on sensor devices using sound waves generated with thin film piezoelectric materials, such as zinc oxide. I have always been interested in education too. Being a PhD student at the University of Cambridge is great because it gives you a chance to get involved with teaching – both through lab demonstrations and supervisions. The Lectureship allowed me to continue to be very active in teaching, while also starting to develop and deliver my own lectures.
IF: What are your views about electrical engineering (EE) education in the UK?
AF: We take the importance of electrical engineering in our everyday lives for granted, whether that’s our dependence on electrical power, computing power or communications. Yet if we are to continue improving our standard of living whilst simultaneously addressing global issues such as climate change, then we will need future generations of electrical engineers. I think that the importance of electrical engineering for the UK economy is often overlooked. Electrical engineering is a big field and it offers many highly-paid and really interesting jobs. Cambridge is a member of the UK Electronics Skills Foundation (www.ukesf.org), which is trying to convey the importance of this sector to children in schools and provide support for students at university.
IF: What do you think are the key offerings or values unique to the Cambridge electrical engineering programs from other universities?
AF: I mentioned that Cambridge is unusual in that it has a single Engineering Department and this is reflected in our undergraduate course. During their first two years at university,all students `take a general engineering programme covering all of the main engineering disciplines; before specialising in years three and four. This has two important consequences.
Firstly, it allows students to find out more about different engineering disciplines before committing to a career in one of them. Perhaps even more importantly, though, it gives our students an appreciation and general understanding of the challenges that are faced in all the main engineering-related fields. Almost all engineering requires teamwork, usually between specialists across different disciplines. The breadth of education that the Cambridge course offers means that once you start working in the field you will be able to understand what other people in your team are working on and have a meaningful conversation with them, in order to come up with an effective solution that works for everyone.
IF: In your opinion, what impact can university research studies have on the EE Industry?
AF: Universities are fundamental to the development of new technology. They provide an environment where we can push our latest understanding of science to its limits and carry out very early stage research that would be too risky for the industry to take on. These early stage ideas then go through a funnel where they are tested scientifically, practically and then commercially. Although not all ideas that are investigated at universities make it through to final commercialisation, without this fundamental enquiry-based research technological developments would eventually stagnate.
IF: More specifically, what impact did Cambridge University research have on the EE field in the past few years and how is it affecting it today?
AF: There is an outstanding range of high impact research in Electrical Engineering going on at Cambridge. Just to name a few of our current contributions, Cambridge-based researchers are trying to develop more efficient power semiconductor chips that can reduce the energy consumption of household electronics, define communications standards that determine how data can be sent at high rates over optical fibre networks, and understand high-k dielectrics that are now routinely used in transistors for microprocessors.
IF: Are Cambridge University students involved in meaningful research projects? If yes, how are they involved and how can this help to form them as engineers?
AF: Yes, all final year undergraduates have to undertake a research project, which takes up about half of their time. Students choose a project from several hundred options or they can propose projects of their own, if they can find an academic at the university who is willing to support them. They are then assigned to a research group and will usually work alongside PhD students and postdoctoral research associates throughout the year. These projects can lead to published papers, patents, or other tangible outputs, so not only do they provide great experience in project management and research, but they are good for the CV too!
IF: What do you feel are the most important skills and knowledge that an electrical engineer can acquire from a university degree in order to confidently and competently work within the EE industry?
AF: It is definitely important that students learn the fundamental analysis techniques and basic physics upon which electrical engineering is based, as well as the mathematics that sits alongside this. But just as important is for them to acquire the ability to learn new things by themselves, so that they will be able to gain the knowledge necessary to tackle new challenges they encounter as they progress in their career. Other key skills that electrical engineers should acquire at university include the ability to communicate effectively with others and work well in a team. Ideally, a university degree should also get students started on their journey towards becoming a Chartered Engineer.
IF: In your opinion, how can education influence an engineer’s prospects for employment?
AF: Education should open doors, ideally allowing an individual to spend their working life doing something that they find personally fulfilling and that provides a good standard of living as well. Engineering is great for this. There are so many opportunities to work on really interesting projects, whether in academia or industry, which can have a real impact and help to make the lives of others better.
IF: What do you think are the pros and cons of only completing a bachelor’s program in EE, compared to also pursuing further education (e.g. a MSc or PhD)?
AF: The great thing about the degrees that universities currently offer is that they give enormous choice. Everyone is an individual and educational needs can change throughout life. Going down the route of a PhD allows someone to gain expert knowledge in a specialised area and extensive research skills. An MScs, on the other hand, give students the possibility of either changing career direction or gaining specific knowledge. Going into industry gives an appreciation of how to commercialise technology, but starting off down an industrial path after finishing an undergraduate course does close off the option of going back to university in the future, or vice versa.
IF: What aspects of training electrical engineers and carrying out research in this field do you find most gratifying and which ones more challenging?
AF: I really enjoy working in a branch of engineering that is constantly evolving and changing our everyday lives and being able to share this with future generations of engineers. The challenge is staying up to date with the latest developments in a fast-changing field and being able to incorporate this knowledge into teaching.
IF: What general advice would you give to young electrical engineers and recent graduates?
AF: Be inquisitive, don’t be afraid to push yourself outside your comfort zone from time to time and listen to advice from others.
IF: Could you share with us any current research or projects your department is currently working on?
AF: The intersection between electrical engineering and medicine is a really interesting emerging field. We have just established a new research theme in ‘Systems and Devices for Health’ which looks at how electronic devices can improve how we monitor wellbeing, diagnose disease at an earlier stage and enable new treatments after diagnosis.
IF: What are your plans for future research and are there any upcoming projects/initiatives at Cambridge University that you’d like to share with our readers?
AF: My group has just received funding from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council to work on a new technique for creating gaps between metal electrodes that are around 10 nm long at low cost over large areas, by literally peeling layers of metal away from on top of each other. This allows semiconducting nanomaterials, like zinc oxide nanowires, to then be put into the gap to create electronic devices that can operate at very high frequencies on plastic substrates. This is needed to enable future generations of the Internet of Things (IoT), where everyday objects have a digital presence through embedding low cost, high performance electronics.
Professor Flewitt is currently carrying out research investigating new semiconductor materials, as well as other techniques that could help to enhance the performance of electronic devices. In addition, he also teaches electronics engineering-related modules to students at the university and supervises PhD students on projects related to acoustic wave sensors, solar cells, and tactile surfaces.
A growing area of research within Cambridge’s Electrical Engineering division is Photonics, as the university has several industrial partners in this area. The university also has groups carrying out research into bioelectronics, solid state electronics, nanoscale science, electrical power, and energy conversion. You can find out more about Electrical and Electronics Engineering courses offered at Cambridge on the university's electrical engineering department's website.