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Sister Programs Offer Shared Experiences: The Duke-Duke Kunshan ECE Master’s Program Turns Three

The Duke-DKU MEng degree in ECE offers a solid foundation for aspiring software engineers and data analysts —and a haven for Duke students unable to travel internationally during the pandemic

When Duke Engineering’s Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering partnered with Duke Kunshan University (DKU) to launch a new Master of Engineering degree in ECE in 2018, one of the program’s biggest draws was the opportunity for its students to develop international business savvy. The first year in the program would be spent in Kunshan, China, at DKU; students would live and study in Durham, NC, at Duke, for the entirety of the second year, and earn a diploma from Duke University when their coursework was complete.

Another aspect of the program’s appeal has been its unique curriculum; to ensure solid foundational knowledge at the very outset, students take requisite courses in introductory programming. An introductory course in computer systems is also available to students who didn’t study computer engineering as an undergraduate. With this foundation in place, industry-oriented students can then build upon their specific interests in big data analysis or software development.

Students in the software development track of the master’s program in ECE at Duke take the same two foundational courses. The common focus has made it possible for DKU to extend “visiting student” status to 30 Chinese students who belong to the Duke ECE master’s program but whose travel has been restricted because of the pandemic—more than doubling the size of the ECE master’s student population.

A Tale of Two Students

Qin Sun and Wenchao Guo go about their daily lives as master’s students in very different ways. Guo, a first-year MEng student, gets up at dawn and hits the books before class. Sun, who is a visiting student from the Duke ECE master’s program studying software development, tries to catch an extra hour or two of sleep if she can. After class, while Guo recharges by hitting the gym with his friends, Sun strolls around Dayu Bay, letting the beauty of the lake there refresh her spirit before settling in at a coffee shop to review her coursework.

“I did not believe myself to be a beginner. But when I started to read All of Programming I found that although I had learned some things in my undergraduate program, I could still gain so much from this course and this book."

Qin Sun, DUKE ECE Master's student 

The two students have a lot in common, though. They both want to build careers as software engineers. Both cite the excellent reputations of their respective schools as the top reason they accepted admission into their programs. And, despite the fact the Sun would normally be strolling through Duke Gardens and sipping espresso at Duke hangout Twinnie’s this year, both students are currently living and studying in Kunshan, within the shared academic bubble that the sister universities created to mitigate pandemic-related travel restrictions. Sun was able to take two of her courses in person at DKU last fall, while tuning in remotely to a third class on algorithms taught by Eric Autry, a Duke assistant research professor of mathematics.

Another thing that Sun and Guo have in common is that they both love their programs’ first-year curriculum design—though Sun, who studied ECE as an undergraduate, was at first frustrated by the thought of slogging through an introductory programming course. “I did not believe myself to be a beginner,” she said. “But when I started to read All of Programming (by Duke ECE faculty member Andrew Hilton) I found that although I had learned some things in my undergraduate program, I could still gain so much from this course and this book. It was very cool.”

student at DKU cafe

Guo, who majored in mechanical engineering as an undergraduate, had already tried to teach himself programming and knew there were gaps in his knowledge that needed to be filled. “It wasn’t a very solid foundation,” he admitted. “When I went to a technical interview I had some problems. But having taken ECE 550 and 551, I can confidently say I’ve mastered something. The courses have really helped me.”

 "Having taken ECE 550 and 551, I can confidently say I’ve mastered something."

Wenchao Guo, Duke-DKU ECE Master’s student

And both Sun and Guo say they’re grateful for the opportunity to live with and learn from some of their classmates this year. Both live in dormitories with other graduate students, and Guo said that he and his suitemates made good use of the meeting room on the second floor of their suite. “It was especially helpful in 550, where we needed to cooperate in order to finish a project—developing a Tetris game using Verilog. Using the whiteboard to show our thoughts and generate solutions was very efficient. It’s a really valuable part of living in a dormitory.”

Sun said the Tetris project, though difficult—she and her roommate worked on it together, nearly nonstop, for more than a week—has been her favorite to date. “I must say, I am very lucky to have the chance to spend my time in DKU right now, and communicate with my classmates face to face,” said Sun.

Creating this opportunity for the visiting students was not without challenges, said Duke ECE professor and director of the MEng at DKU, Xin Li. Master’s students expect to gain international experience from studying abroad, and that component of the program needed to be retooled to accommodate current circumstances. “Many students will complete their required summer internships at multi-national companies in China, exposing them to environments with international corporate cultures,” he said.

Then, of course, there were the physical logistics of doubling the size of the master’s cohort.

“Supporting all these students required additional instructors, teaching assistants, classrooms, on-campus housing and other services, and the leadership at Duke and DKU worked very efficiently to procure these resources on time,” said Li, who noted that Duke and DKU have closely collaborated on many aspects of the ECE program, including recruitment and curriculum development, for several years now. “Our extraordinary offering of an on-campus experience to Duke ECE students during the pandemic is one more outcome of our fruitful collaboration,” he said.

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