Robert Dick and Peter Dinda

Bruce Wessels

Two departments hardwire their ties to become one

The Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science is born

September 1 marked a marriage of sorts at McCormick, a merger between two departments whose overlapping interests have long joined them as common-law partners. The newly created Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science facilitates and strengthens the interactions that were taking place between what were the Departments of Electrical and Computer Engineering, focusing on hardware, and of Computer Science, focusing on software. It also coincided with a move for computer science faculty from their previous off-campus location into offices in Tech and the new Ford Motor Company Engineering Design Center, where some faculty from electrical and computer engineering will join them. The center is joined by a bridge to Tech, home to the remainder of the electrical and computer engineering faculty, which put both groups, previously separated by more than a mile, near one another.

“A 15-minute walk might not sound like much,” says Robert Dick, an assistant professor in the former electrical and computer engineering department, “but you also miss those unexpected collaborations that happen when you run into someone in the hall.”

For Dick, those collaborations also include more structured and formal arrangements in the classroom and the lab. Last winter he partnered with Peter Dinda, the Lisa Wissner-Slivka and Benjamin Slivka Junior Professor of Computer Science, to teach Introduction to Real-Time Systems, the study of how to build hardware and software systems that deliver timely responses — an effort that involved trips back and forth for the faculty members as well as their students. He is also lending a hand to Fabi‡n Bustamante, an assistant professor in the department formerly known as computer science, on a project titled “Car-to-Car Cooperation for Vehicular Ad Hoc Networks,” which explores distributed systems on large-scale, intervehicle networks, where moving vehicles equipped with sensors communicate with each other to create, for example, traffic advisory systems that inform drivers of current conditions in real time.

“Two different backgrounds are often better than one,” notes Dick in explaining these collaborations. “Peter and I learned from each other when we taught the class together, and the same is happening as I collaborate on research with Fabian.”

Dick says that the merged department also more accurately reflects his own interests. “Half of my work is electrical and computer engineering and half is computer science,” he says. “The merger will make it easier to coordinate classes and will result in less overhead for the collaborations that are already taking place.”

Divisions of labor

With the merger, the titles of faculty from the two former departments have changed slightly to include both areas. Not only are Dick, Dinda, and Bustamante now in the same department, but all three are in the computer engineering and systems division — one of six divisions in the new department:

  • Solid state and photonics explores the design, analysis, and proof-of-concept development of solid-state and photonic devices and systems.
  • Signals and systems covers signals, including images and other forms of information and their acquisition, representation, processing, analysis and interpretation, coding, transmission through networks, wireless, and other channels and the control of linear and nonlinear dynamic systems.
  • Computing, algorithms, and applications focuses on the development and application of computational and algorithmic tools useful in ever more powerful computing environments.
  • Computer engineering and systems addresses architecture, operating systems, distributed and parallel systems, compilers, the interface with software systems, robotics, databases, VLSI, networking and security, and performance analysis.
  • Cognitive systems examines how the mind works and creates systems for education, performance support, and entertainment that exploit principles of cognitive science and artificial intelligence.
  • Graphics and interactive media explores how people interact with the data, information, and images that are gathered, processed, and presented by a computational system.

Just as the subject matter of the two former departments overlapped, the divisions themselves — while providing necessary structure — will overlap in some areas. Furthermore, some faculty may belong to more than one division or move from one division to another as their research interests evolve.

“The reorganization has the potential to dramatically expand the research and educational coverage of systems and computer engineering at Northwestern,” says Dinda. “For the first time, the faculty of the new computer engineering and systems division has expertise that spans hardware — from the transistor to the Internet — and software — from the tools that make chips possible to tools that enable planetary scale computing and communication. In learning how to create these most complex of human artifacts, we also are well poised to discover the underlying general properties and design and analysis principles of complex artifacts.”

A critical mass

Leading the new department is Bruce Wessels, Walter P. Murphy Professor of Materials Science and chair of electrical engineering and computer science. “Bruce is a highly accomplished researcher whose interests intersect closely with those of his colleagues in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science,” said McCormick Dean Julio M. Ottino, who cited Wessels's leadership experience as chair of the General Faculty Committee of the University Senate at Northwestern and as national president of the Minerals, Metals, and Materials Society (TMS). Wessels has been a member of the Northwestern faculty since 1977 and is internationally recognized for his research on electronic, magnetic, and photonic materials and devices. He is the author of 255 articles and coauthor of five books and has been awarded 13 patents.

Wessels is enthusiastic about his new role. “The merger gives us critical mass, which in turn helps attract talented students and faculty,” he says. “It will also facilitate scholarly dialogue and aid in the development of new initiatives across the divisions and throughout McCormick. Electrical engineering and computer science are among the most dynamic areas in engineering, and this merger adds to the excitement.”

The merger should lead to opportunities for increased collaboration, says Wessels, citing two examples: Electrical engineering faculty working to advance image processing should benefit from collaborating with computer science faculty with interests in graphics and interactive media; and electrical engineering faculty with interests in nanoelectronics might work with computer engineers to develop new architecture and operating systems. Wessels says that collaboration, already a hallmark of McCormick, is especially important for the new department and its broader mission: “Educators and their students need to collaborate to develop the complex systems required for the 21st century.”

Ottino seconds this. He notes that the vision emerging from the faculty of the department indicates that the old disciplinary boundaries are breaking down. Faculty members predict that in the 21st century the creation of new substrates for computing will require photonics and nanotechnology. Computation will be embedded everywhere, which in turn will require transparent communication between the panoply of devices in the environment. Communication will expand to include systems that understand human language and gesture to make them capable of interacting more naturally with people. New networked computational infrastructures will lead to the development of software that educates, trains, enlightens, and entertains.

In a letter to the McCormick community, Ottino summarized the hopes for the merged department: “This restructuring represents a new opportunity for all of us — a way to move toward a bright future for computer science and electrical and computer engineering research at McCormick. A great engineering school like ours must have a great electrical engineering and computer science department, and this merger moves us toward that goal.”

—Leanne Star

Northwestern University