Digital Systems Design Pathway
Computation is a marriage of hardware and software to help enable new forms of systems, from microprocessors and mobile devices to network routers, neural computation chips and other devices. Digital systems design couples the hardware and software focus of computing with the physical realities of very large-scale integrated (VLSI) chip design.
The Digital Systems Design pathway is intended for students who are interested in careers at the boundary of hardware and software that require an understanding of computation ranging from software to physical implementation. The pathway provides students with the digital design foundation needed to leverage increasingly evolving technological advances across the computing stack, which ranges from algorithms to real-world hardware engines, and drives advances in science, engineering, medicine and sustainability that improve our quality of life.
This pathway is a good fit for students who are interested in:
- Understanding and building sophisticated systems ranging from low-power cellphone technology to distributed computing systems
- Developing ‘design thinking’ and becoming equipped with skills needed to manage the scale and complexity of modern computing and communication systems
Does a student need a graduate degree specializing in this area to be marketable to industry?
No. However, while a student with a bachelor’s degree can easily find employment, a master’s degree opens up a noticeably wider range of positions in this area. A doctoral degree is generally required for research or teaching.
How can a knowledge of digital systems design be applied in the real world?
Students and graduates applying their knowledge and skills in digital system design contribute to several key enabling technologies in the real world, for example:
- Design and verification of microprocessors used in a range of applications from ultra-low power sensors, cellphones and data centers
- Machine learning, signal processing, cryptography and accelerators within integrated circuits used in a range of different applications from mobile communication to autonomous vehicles to neural interfaces
- Graphics processors such as those built by Nvidia, AMD and ARM
Does digital systems design touch on global impact, equity and/or quality of life?
Yes. Advances in computing over the last few decades have transformed the fields of science and medicine, enhanced human productivity, and improved convenience and quality of life. Affordable, low-power smartphones, for instance, continue to play a transformational role in developing countries, allowing low-resource sections of the world to participate in the global supply chain and providing improved access to banking, education and medical services.
Areas of Impact
Air and Space
From the on-board electronics that guide, control and power the Hubble Space telescope and the Mars rover to Cubesats, digital systems engineers are building the sophisticated electronics that enable these sorts of applications.
Computing Data and Digital Technologies
Digital systems engineers are focused on the hardware and software underpinning of computational systems and in harnessing current and future digital technologies.
Environmental Sustainability and Energy
There is an evolving need for developing new sensing systems that can better monitor energy in homes and buildings, as well as better monitor the environment (wildfires, soil, air quality) so appropriate action can be taken on information these sensors deliver.
Health and Medicine
As health and medicine evolve to use ever greater amounts of electronics, digital systems engineers help to create these diagnostic and treatment systems. From a smartphone that can automatically detect disease to the electronics that capture data and recreate imaging from CT and PET scanners, this technology relies heavily on computing systems.
Infrastructure, Transportation, and Society
As the supply-chain crunch in semiconductors has shown, modern automobiles are reliant on a large number of digital chips and embedded systems to function. As we move toward self-driving automobiles, this will increasingly be the case. Digital systems engineers bring together the hardware and software that underpins this technology.
Related Career Paths
Students graduating with a focus in digital systems design often get jobs in design and verification in the growing and increasingly critical semiconductor industry. Graduates continue to be sought after by large companies such as Intel, Qualcomm, Apple, IBM, AMD and Micron.
Digital Systems Design Courses
These courses are suggested for those following the Digital Systems Design pathway but are not required to complete the BSECE degree program:
EE 331 — Devices and Circuits I
How can knowledge about electrical engineering fundamentals be combined with digital logic to build the sorts of digital circuits that lie at the heart of processors today? This course begins with a close examination of a simple CMOS inverter design and uses it to introduce students to the world of digital circuit design.
EE 371 — Design of Digital Circuits and Systems
This course provides a theoretical background and practical experience with tools and techniques for modeling complex digital systems, using the Verilog hardware description language. Students will learn how to maintain signal integrity, manage power consumption and ensure robust intra- and inter-system communication.
EE 469 — Computer Architecture I
How does the machine code produced by a compiler translate into computation by a processor? How can we improve the performance of a processor, and what are the trade-offs that must be made? These questions and many more are answered by this course, as students receive an initial exposure to computer architecture and design their own processor in Verilog Hardware Design Language, an industry standard for hardware description.
EE 476 — Introduction to Very Large-Scale Integrated Design (Custom VLSI Design)
Modularity, scalability and abstraction are cornerstones of being able to translate a knowledge of digital circuits gained in EE 331 into substantially more complex VLSI sub-systems (such as an arithmetic logic unit). Engineering design is a practitioner’s art. In this class, students learn the fundamentals of digital VLSI design and solidify their knowledge by taking part in a challenging quarter-long series of design assignments, which culminate in a high-quality custom design of a computational module. VLSI-1 is sponsored and supported by industry members such as Micron because of the relevance of the knowledge and skills imparted in this course.
EE 477 — Very Large-Scale Integrated Design II (Automated VLSI Design)
The vast portion of modern integrated circuits today are constructed using synthesis, auto-place and route (SAPR) methodologies. These methodologies allow a designer to describe their design using a hardware design language such as System Verilog and rely on electronic design automation to produce digital circuits that implement the desired function. Managing the massive scale achievable by such designs requires understanding both system-building principles and higher-level concepts in digital design, as well as the skills for effective use of industry-standard design tools to produce these designs. The relevance of the content and skills taught in this class have led to its support by Intel.
EE 478 — Capstone Integrated Digital Design Projects
Students work in groups of three to implement design projects which have, in the past, included the design of an ultra-low-power mixed-signal sensor chip containing data-converters, integrated power electronics for energy-efficient computing, and higher-performance microprocessor implementations. Students will use a variety of industry standard tools to implement and validate their designs.
Students studying Sustainable Energy Systems should also consider the following customizable pathways:
- Computer Architecture
- Embedded Systems
- Machine Learning
Enriching Your Path
Students following the Digital Systems Design pathway could benefit from a stronger foundation in analog circuits. With that in mind, these courses are recommended:
- EE 332 — Devices and Circuits II
- EE 470 — Computer Architecture II
- EE 473 — Linear Integrated Circuits