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A non-profit publication of the Office of the University Relations of Virginia Tech,
including The Conductor, a special section of the Spectrum printed 4 times a year

New engineering center opens

By Lynn Nystrom

Spectrum Volume 18 Issue 06 - September 28, 1995

The computer engineering faculty in the Bradley Department of Electrical Engineering has formed the Virginia Tech Information Systems Center (VISC). Veteran faculty member James Armstrong will direct the center. "Our computer engineering faculty has secured more than $2 million in research funding in the past few years, and now we need to focus this effort," he said.

Also, the student interest in computer engineering is climbing. "Last year, we had students with 3.0 averages who could not get into our program because of space limitations," Armstrong said. "Our department plans are to expand our program and to initiate a master's degree in this field."

The new center also plans to capitalize on the fact that the best concentration of the telecommunications industry is in the northern Virginia, Washington, D.C., area. "This region has been labeled Telecommunications Valley, and these industries need networking and computing expertise we can provide," Armstrong said.

EE faculty members already have produced a number of products that have direct commercial application. Among these products are: an automated test-pattern generator and a fault simulator for combinational circuits; a parallel fault simulator for sequential circuits; the VHDL Validation Suite (a set of 2,200 tests which will determine if a VHDL tool correctly intreprets the language); and a computer-aided engineering workstation that models electric-utility distribution systems. This last item is being used by some 70 percent of the electric-utility industry.

Computer engineering started at Virginia Tech in 1985, and 40 students were admitted each year. In 1994, the number was increased to 70.

The department hopes to increase undergraduate enrollments in computer engineering to more than 150 students per year over the next few years, EE Department Head Leonard Ferrari said. "We estimate that enrollments this year would have exceeded 120 students if we admitted all eligible students. The curriculum will be significantly expanded in the software area."

In addition, the department hopes to provide electrical engineering majors with an improved set of courses in systems and application software using a variety of computing platforms and operating systems to provide them with a broader set of fundamental computational skills, Ferrari said. Because of the department's unique strengths in communication systems, computer engineering majors will also be able to obtain an exceptionally strong education in computer networks and communications.

The department is also discussing the creation of a computer engineering master's degree. Students could focus their program of study in areas such as communication networks, VLSI circuit design, image processing, computer architecture, and real-time computing.

In a March 1995 Money magazine report, employment in the computing engineering area was among the top choices of students and an area that attracted the highest salaries. "Considering that microchips are now found everywhere, it's not surprising that four of our 50 fastest-growing positions were computer-related. Indeed, the only job to give computer engineers a run for first place was computer systems analyst," Money magazine reported in its article "the Fifty Hottest Jobs in America."

At Virginia Tech, the new center will focus on the analysis and design of information systems that are computed-based. These systems consist of a form of computing element and an interconnection scheme. Computing elements can be single chips, boards, or systems. Interconnection schemes can connect units within a chip, chips on a board, boards or processors in a system, or computers on a network. The design of information systems also includes the design of algorithms and software that run on the computers and the interfaces to the computing hardware.

VISC has already received a $40,000 equipment grant from the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia (SCHEV). This money will purchase two workstations that can be used as servers to facilitate a large number of users of the center. The center `s current facilities include two laboratories equipped with 14 Sun workstations, four DEC workstations, two Macintosh and four high-performance personal computers. This equipment is networked.

Future university plans call for building an Advanced Communication and Information Technology Center that will provide facilities to use computers and networking for the technology-intensive classrooms of the future. Space has been requested in this building for a VISC laboratory to support these activities.

EE faculty members and students are currently involved in a number of computer-related research projects, including developing computer software for testing and simulation of circuits; interfacing computer networking and multi-media techniques; and using computers for image processing.

Virginia Tech faculty members currently involved in the center are Armstrong, Lynn Abbott, Peter Athanus, Robert Broadwater, Walling Cyre, Nat Davis, Ferrari, Gail Gray, Dong Ha, Scott Midkiff, and Charles Nunnally. Armstrong is seeking additional members from the university faculty.