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What is a Computer Hardware Engineering Degree?
Computer hardware is the collection of physical, tangible objects that constitute a computer system, including the monitor, mouse, keyboard, computer data storage, hard disk drive, graphic cards, sound cards, memory, and motherboard.
Computer hardware engineers work closely with software engineers and computer programmers to make sure that all of these components are compatible with current software, which is the set of instructions that can be stored and run by hardware.
Students of computer hardware engineering learn how to create schematics of computer equipment to be built, make models of new hardware designs and test those models, analyze test results and modify designs as needed, and update computer equipment so that it will work with new software. In short, they learn to build the machines which together with software form usable computing systems.
- Standalone computer hardware engineering programs are quite rare. Many schools offer a hardware emphasis option within their computer engineering degree program.
- It is important to select a program that is accredited by the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET).
- A license is required in all US states for those computer hardware engineers who will offer their services directly to the public.
Bachelor’s Degree in Computer Hardware Engineering – Four Year Duration
The bachelor’s is the most common degree held by professionals in the field. The objective of the undergraduate program in computer hardware engineering is to equip students with foundational skills in programming, engineering, and circuit board design. The following is a summary of these skills:
This hardware description language (HDL) is the industry standard for electronic systems. Verilog is similar to a programming language, but not exactly the same thing. While a programming language is used to build software, a hardware description language is used to describe the behavior of digital logic circuits. In other words, an HDL is used to design computer chips including processors, CPUs (central processing units), motherboards, and similar digital circuitry.
C is a general-purpose programming language and one of the first computer programming languages students learn. It is extremely popular, simple, and flexible to use. C is a structured programming language that is machine-independent and extensively used to write various applications. It allows engineers to issue commands to their hardware and is used in testing and analyzing during hardware development.
This programming language builds on the foundations of the C programming language. C++ supports different ways of programming, such as object-oriented, functional, procedural, logical, and database. This makes it both powerful and flexible. Computer hardware engineers use C++ to design and test a wider variety of systems.
Field-Programmable Gate Array
A field-programmable gate array (FPGA) is an integrated circuit that can be customized for a specific application. Unlike traditional CPUs, FPGAs are ‘field-programmable.’ This means that they can be configured in the field, by the user after manufacturing. FPGAs contain programmable logic blocks which can be wired in different configurations.
These blocks create a physical array of logic gates that can be used to perform different operations. A programmer can use hardware description language commands to configure the gates and how they connect to one other. By linking several gates together, it is possible to perform advanced logic operations.
Engineering design is a process, each part of which reveals information about the problem and possible solutions. It is iterative, involving a series of steps that are repeated to tweak and improve the product with each cycle, until a problem is clearly identified and solutions are developed and improved.
Engineering design is what distinguishes computer engineering from computer science. One of the principal components of the computer hardware engineering curriculum, therefore, is the application of design methods, problem-solving, and logic skills to design machinery.
Circuit Board Design
Circuit boards connect computers’ mechanical and electrical components. The objective of courses in this area is to teach students how to design, test, and analyze these boards.
Master’s Degree in Computer Hardware Engineering – Two Year Duration
Computer hardware engineering master’s candidates take courses that prepare them for senior level industry or research careers.
Here are sample courses offered at the master’s level:
- Fundamentals of Computer Systems and Engineering – a refresher course covering topics such as digital logic, assembly programming, computer architecture, memory hierarchies and technologies, input / output, hardware implementation in VHDL (Very High Speed Integrated Circuit Description Language – a language that describes the behavior of electronic circuits, (most commonly digital circuits), operating systems, and networking
- Advanced Computer Architecture – processor design, caches (memory hierarchies), virtual memory, storage systems, and simulation techniques; future directions in computer architecture
- Advanced Digital Design – fundamentals of advanced digital design and the use of a hardware description language, VHDL; system examples include the arithmetic / logic unit, memory, and microcontrollers; engineering standards and realistic constraints; cost, environmental impact, manufacturability, health and safety, ethics, social and political impact
- Probability for Electrical and Computer Engineers – basic concepts and techniques used in modeling of systems with applications to performance and reliability of computer systems
- Datacenter Computing – advanced topics in data centers; recent advances in processor, memory, network, storage, and modern software systems that run in computing clouds
- Energy Efficient Computing – reasoning about energy efficiency across the hardware / software interface and across a range of system components
- Fault Tolerant and Testable Computer Systems – technological reasons for faults; hardware fault tolerance: the ability of a system to continue operating properly despite the failure of some of its components; fault tolerance modeling, analysis, testing, and design
- Semiconductor Devices for Integrated Circuits – basic semiconductor properties
- Analog Integrated Circuit Design – design and layout of CMOS (complementary metal oxide semiconductor) analog integrated circuits
- VLSI (Very Large Scale Integration) System Testing –fault modeling, fault simulation, testing algorithms, testability measures, design for testability; VLSI is the process of creating an integrated circuit by combining thousands of transistors into a single chip
Degrees Similar to Computer Hardware Engineering
Aerospace engineering degree programs teach the analytical, computational, and engineering and design skills needed to work in the aerospace industry. Students learn how to apply this knowledge to the manufacturing, testing, and monitoring of civil or commercial aircraft, military aircraft, missiles, rockets, spacecraft, lunar vehicles, and space stations.
Students of applied physics learn how to use physics to solve practical problems. For this reason, the field is sometimes referred to as the bridge between physics and engineering. Coursework includes computational physics, materials science, thermodynamics, and nanotechnology.
The field of computer science is focused on computer systems and how humans interact with them. Courses cover mathematics for computer science, artificial intelligence, data structures and algorithms, and introduction to program design.
Students of electrical engineering learn how to use physics, electronics, and electromagnetism to design devices that are powered by or produce electricity. Most degree programs in the field start with foundational classes in calculus, physics, and chemistry.
Students of mechanical engineering learn how to research, design, develop, and test mechanical and thermal devices, including tools, sensors, engines, and machines. These devices serve many industries, including the aerospace, medical, energy, and manufacturing sectors. In addition to coursework in engineering and design, degree programs in the field include classes in mathematics, life sciences, and physical sciences.
Degree programs in robotics technology prepare students to work with engineers who design robots and robotic systems that can perform duties that humans are either unable or prefer not to perform.
Computer Software Engineering
Degree programs in computer software engineering teach students how to apply engineering principles to software development. Students learn how to design, build, test, implement, and maintain computer operating systems, as well as applications that allow end users to accomplish tasks on their computers, smartphones, and other electronic devices.
The typical curriculum includes several programming languages, operating systems analysis, and website design. Most programs begin with core engineering classes like mathematics, chemistry, and physics.
Skills You’ll Learn
The work of designing, testing, and evaluating computers is complex, leaving those who study the field with a diverse transferrable skill set:
- Critical Thinking and Analysis – the work of an computer hardware engineers requires the capacity to think logically and analytically
- Active Learning – evolving technology in the field means that computer hardware engineers ‘learn how to learn’ and keep up with the latest information in their field
- Communication – computer hardware engineering projects are rarely one-person jobs; they call for an ability to interact with others
- Organization – managing time, planning, and prioritizing are essential for the busy computer hardware engineer
- Complex Problem-Solving – the field of computer hardware engineering can present complex challenges and problems
- Creativity – thinking out of the box and coming up with innovative approaches and new designs
- Mathematics and Physics – these are fundamental skills in the field of computer hardware engineering
- Complying with Standards – part of the computer hardware engineer’s job is to evaluate whether designs and processes comply with laws, regulations, and standards
What Can You Do with a Computer Hardware Engineering Degree?
Because of the very specific nature of computer hardware engineering, most of its graduates work directly in the field, researching, designing, developing, manufacturing, testing, installing, and maintaining computer systems and components.
According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, these are the largest employers of computer hardware engineers:
- Computer Systems Design and Related Services
- Computer and Peripheral Equipment Manufacturing (examples: computer systems built into cars, home appliances, and medical devices)
- Scientific Research and Development Services
- Semiconductor and Other Electronic Component Manufacturing
- Federal Government
In whichever sector they work, computer hardware engineers are, by necessity, lifetime learners, because computer technology is constantly evolving. Professionals working with a specific type of hardware often pursue certifications particular to that hardware, such as Microsoft, Cisco, or IBM certifications.
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