Nestled among some of Cornell’s most contemporary edifices, Phillips Hall can be easy to miss. Regardless, it is home to the College of Electrical and Computer Engineering which is engaged in some of the most cutting edge work on campus.
That has been the case since 1883, when the discipline of electrical engineering began to rise on Cornell’s fledgling campus. Indeed, this discipline was the first of its kind in the nation, and while other schools would soon follow, it was rarely without Cornell’s leadership.
Stanford, for instance, started a similar program the following year—“by stealing members of our faculty,” Clifford Pollock, the current director of electrical and computer engineering, is quick to add that qualifier with a smile.
One would be hard pressed to find an individual more eager to talk about their program. Professor Pollock, who joined ECE in 1983, for instance, has no struggle in creating replies when asked about fields in which ECE has been a pioneer. These include high voltage transformers and wiring, oscilloscopes, cathode tubes, and the first good textbooks on electrical circuits, to name a few.
These developments were not the result of an initial spate of successes at a time in which few schools competed with Cornell. Even as some of the nation’s top institutions rose to prominence in electrical engineering, ECE continued to pave the way.
For instance, ECE was on the vanguard in developing the infrastructure necessary for work in planar and inner circuits. In 1980, it became home to the first nanofabrication facility in higher education — which included the development of the first national clean room for public use at a university. Today, too, ECE continues to break new ground. Pollock explained that while most programs continue to work on all things digital, Cornell is leading the pack in delving once again into analogue circuitry in which we have been the leader for the last 10 or 15 years.
The work of ECE does not only benefit engineers and electricians, either: one area in which ECE faculty and students are currently dedicating significant energy is molecular beam epitaxy which Pollock explains has important applications in consumer technology. By allowing the growth of extremely thin layers of exotic materials, MBEs permit construction of goods like more powerful batteries without the need to enhance their size. Such technology has far-reaching applications in a world where Silicon Valley continues to delve into smaller wearables. One example is the new security issues that arise alongside the proliferation of electronic systems.
“How, for instance, do we assure that chips being produced abroad don’t ship with backdoors?” Pollock asked.
This problem, too, falls within the purview of ECE. Still, the obstacles being tackled by ECE are not only research-oriented. Anyone walking through Phillips’s second floor would be hard pressed not to notice the shiny, glass-walled room under construction. A straight shot from Phillips’s Campus Road entrance, the refurbished space is the Maker Lab, a personal undertaking of Pollock.
The Maker Lab, which Pollock joked is the “only nice space in Phillips Hall,” aims help students understand their devices better.
“Growing up, I had to fix my bike every weekend. These days, if an item breaks, you take it back to the manufacturer because it’s so high-tech, or just throw it away.”
In the Maker lab, ECE students will have access to a wall full of materials that they can use at any time to make circuits. It is a space where ECE students will be able to “go in and play, and make something,”Pollock said.
All the progress on the Ithaca campus aside, perhaps ECE’s most significant current project is its emerging role in New York City’s Cornell Tech. As one of only four departments represented at Cornell’s new tech campus, ECE will play an essential role in developing the new school, opening up a slew of opportunities for ECE students and faculty alike.
“Class and teaching in Ithaca, and outreach opportunities there,” Pollock said “you shouldn’t have to give up on one to have the other.”
The move into the Big Apple means changes in Ithaca as well: Pollock aims to have an electronic computer space that links seamlessly with the tech campus and an electronic classroom such that students in both locales can take classes at the other. Here, yet again, ECE finds itself on the forefront.
What is it, then, that makes Cornell the right environment for electrical engineering?
“Cornell has a culture of interaction. You don’t just work within your department. The whole university sort of talks to each other. It truly is a culture of interacting with other departments.” Pollock said.
He backed this up with an anecdote: sometime ago, Pollock said he was trying to hire a faculty member from Princeton. Upon inquiring why the sought after faculty member would want to leave Princeton, Pollock said he was met with a reassuring reply: “because you guys work together.”
That, and excellent professors is what makes ECE a great field to study according to Rohan Ghosh, ’18.
“All of my ECE professors have been great—whether entertaining and funny, or just really knowledgeable,” he said.
Pollock himself does not escape praise: “he’s the head of the department, yet he teaches an introductory course in circuits in his spare time” Ghosh said.
As an electrical engineer hoping to minor in Computer Science, Ghosh himself is no stranger to the sorts of collaboration and crossover Pollock identifies as key to Cornell.
As the dividing lines between different fields continue to blur, the question becomes one of the role ECE will play in the future. To this end, Pollock said that he came across an electrical engineering curriculum from 1883. On it was “telegraphy, electric lighting, and things like fields and waves,” he said. Electric lighting, he proceeds to explain, is now transitioning into solid state lighting like LEDs. Communication is as prominent as ever with the rise of networks, the modern form of telegraphy.
This shows that technologies may change, but with each advancement new challenges arise—“but instead of going at one bit per second with the telegraph, we are going at a terabit per second.”
So will ECE still be around in fifty years?
“We take science and math and make it practical… we are the bridge, and I think we will always be there.” Pollock said.
Nevertheless, Pollock does see one scenario in which the need for a College of Computer and Electrical Engineering ceases.
“Perhaps when we all want to turn the lights off that will be the end of us,” he declared. “But I don’t foresee that happening in my lifetime.”