MSc Digital Systems Engineering

Digital Systems Engineering


This degree has been accredited by the Institute of Engineering and Technology (IET) under licence from the UK regulator, the Engineering Council.




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"DSE module leaders are excellent teachers, who provide interesting lectures & comprehensive practicals.." Adam J Wilson

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The development of digital technology over the past 50 years has revolutionised the design and performance of everything from mobile phones to cars and entertainment systems; and engineers continue to enhance the performance of these devices. Recent developments in nanotechnology promise further large increases in processing power with lower power requirements, and will open up a whole new world of applications for digital techniques. This IET accredited taught programme aims to develop academic and professional excellence both for newly qualified and practicing engineers who wish to extend their professional expertise in digital systems design. It uses FPGAs as a hardware platform and HDL as a design language. The MSc in Digital Systems Engineering at York will provide you with advanced knowledge and transferable skills in the design, modelling, implementation and evaluation of state-of-the-art digital systems, enabling you to contribute effectively to the increasingly complex and rapidly evolving technologies that are prevalent in industry and research.

You will be able to learn new techniques to keep up-to-date with developments in an industrial and/or research setting, and will have hands-on experience of the different stages of the design of a modern digital system, culminating in the construction of a complex device in a group project. The MSc is taught by academics from York’s world-leading Intelligent Systems and Nanoscience Research Group that specialises in the application of biological techniques to complex digital systems, and makes full use of the industry-standard FPGA design and development facilities within the Department of Electronic Engineering.

Professional Development Framework

All our MScs programmes follow the principles of a carefully designed Professional Development Framework, developed in consultation with our Departmental Advisory Board, with key contributors from Industry, Research and Academia. This ensures that all students gain awareness of the essential skills that employers need and opportunities to develop their personal and team-based effectiveness. This begins with an Induction Week including an introduction to masters-level learning, and student team activities. Throughout the Autumn and Spring Terms students develop their personal effectiveness in a series of workshops (covering such issues as literature, research, referencing, teamwork, leadership, reflective learning, ethics, and business skills). These lead on to Interdisciplinary Masterclasses which cover key research and development cross-curricular topics in emerging technology.

All students are timetabled to be able to attend these sessions. Some programmes incorporate these Workshop and Masterclass elements as an assessed part of credit-weighted modules, but every one of our MSc students is encouraged to attend all sessions in order to develop their skills and to learn from people in different, but related, disciplines. In the Summer Term students are prepared for research methodology and digital literacy, and undertake regular developmental training in project management. This all leads to a major project (60 credit units) which is designed to give research and industry-relevant experience to individuals and teams as a key component of each programme.


Course Content

The course aims to provide a broad-based introduction to state-of-the-art digital system design techniques and to provide a solid grounding in both theory and practice. It is suitable for students wishing to pursue a career in digital electronic industry and research.

The table below shows at what stage of the programme the various modules are taught.

Autumn termSpring termSummer termJuly - September
Integrated Circuit Design & Simulation Embedded Systems for FPGA Design Exercise MSc Research Project
Digital Design Systems Programming for Embedded Devices
C Programming for MSc Digital Engineering for MSc 

Research Methods Theory



MSc Personal Effectiveness and Interdisciplinary Masterclasses MSc Research Project

The MSc is of 12-months duration, starting at the beginning of the Autumn term (late September) until the following September. For term dates, please visit the University term dates page.

Click on the links below to find out more about each module.  Please note that the detailed module contents and timetabling are subject to change.

Autumn term

Integrated Circuit Design and Simulation

Digital Design

C Programming for MSc

MSc Personal Effectiveness and Interdisciplinary Masterclasses (Autumn and Spring)

Spring term

Embedded Systems for FPGA

Systems Programming for Embedded Devices

Digital Engineering for MSc

Summer term

Design Exercise

Research Methods Theory

MSc Project

Group Project

Group Project

The aim of this substantial group project is to immerse the students in a life-like scenario of a company developing digital systems. The project will involve the design, construction and implementation of a complete FPGA-based digital system, providing students with practical experience of project management and team skills. The system will include both software (such as human-computer interface, low-level programming) and hardware (such as FPGA, A/D converters, communication interfaces) components. The project will culminate in the design and realisation of a printed circuit board hosting a FPGA interfaced to a variety of peripherals. Communication links allowing connection to a PC will enable the creation of a diverse range of multimedia, diagnostic or communication systems. Furthermore, at the end of the project, students will keep the boards they have designed, providing them with a complete FPGA development system, allowing them to further investigate digital systems design.

The project preparation will begin towards the end of the Autumn term when groups will be given a Quality Assurance manual, that will prepare the students to establish effective company policies, procedures and roles for group members, introducing the Quality Assurance processes applied to medium to large projects in industry.

In the Autumn term, a module on 'C Programming' will hone the students' skills required to effectively carry out the software components of the project. The module will provide a practical introduction to writing and running C programs as an example of a procedural programming language.

In the Spring term, the actual project will get under way. Groups of 4-6 students will be formed, assigned a target system to design, and provided with a budget. In this term, the students will prepare an implementation plan that will be followed for the remainder of the project. Detailed system specifications will be established and the budget allocated, taking into account the cost of components and off-the-shelf IP modules.

In the Summer term, the project will continue with the pre-implementation phase. Students will design a PCB with the components (FPGA, communication interfaces, displays, memories, etc.) defined in the system specifications. The design will be sent to fabrication and returned by the end of term. Along with the PCB design, the students will develop a block-level algorithmic description of the system to be implemented, defining the role of each component within the system and beginning the development of the software components of the system.

System implementation will begin in July, after the end of the last exam session. The PCB will be tested by verifying the operation of the single components. The software interface on the host PC will be finalised and the board-to-PC communication instantiated. The core of the system, i.e., the implementation of the algorithm in the FPGA circuit, will be designed, simulated, realised, and verified. The simulation and debugging techniques acquired in the taught modules will be employed to ensure the correct operation of the system. The outcome of this final part of the project will be the actual realisation of the system implemented on the custom-designed PCB.

An Example Group Project: An OGG-Vorbis Audio Player

At the beginning of the Spring term, a group of five student is formed and assigned the task of designing an OGG-Vorbis audio decoder/player. The group meets regularly and establishes an implementation plan, assigning tasks to each member and fixing deadlines for the development of the system. In accordance to the requirements of the project the budget is assigned.

At some point in the term, a group leader is selected by the group, responsible for the overall supervision of the group and tasked with ensuring that all tasks are progressing according to the plan, that all documents are prepared on time, and that any emergencies are handled.

Based on the individual skills and interests, the following assignments are made: students 1 and 2 will develop the algorithm and the FPGA implementation, student 3 will handle the peripherals (memories, SD cards, A/D converters), student 4 will be in charge of the board-to-PC communication, and student 5 will design the software interface of the system.

Circuit board

The overall specifications of the system are defined: the PC interface will allow the user to select the audio tracks to be played and parameters such as volume, play mode, etc. The selected tracks will be downloaded to the board through a USB interface (the wireless solution is discarded because of budget considerations) and stored in a SD card. Once the tracks are stored, the board will be disconnected from the PC and operate as a stand-alone unit. The FPGA will retrieve the current track from the SD card and store it in a RAM chip for faster access. The data will be decoded and sent to a D/A converter connected to a set of speakers. A black-and-white display (colour displays being too expensive) will show the title of the track and the elapsed time. Part of the budget is used to acquire a MicroBlaze IP to simplify the implementation of the OGG decoder algorithm in the FPGA.

In the Summer term, students 3 and 4 work together on the design of the PCB, placing and connecting all the components. Once it is ready, the board is sent to fabrication (one board per student will be produced) and the students work on preparing a set of test strategies to verify the correct operation of the board and prepare a document describing their work. Meanwhile, student 5 starts looking at the human-computer interface and to define the software architecture of the system. Students 1 and 2 study the OGG-Vorbis algorithm and start drawing up a detailed system architecture to realise a system capable of meeting the performance requirements of playback.

In July, the boards are ready. Student 3 tests and verifies the operation of the peripheral components, using the pre-defined test strategies. Student 4 tests the communication interface to allow the PC to communicate with the board using the USB interface, working with student 5 on the low-level software drivers. Students 1 and 2 divide their task: student 1 implements the hardware IP and the custom logic required for the decoding, while student 2 will work on the low-level assembler code for the MicroBlaze.

At this stage, a crisis occurs: the custom logic is proving to be more complex than estimated and student 1 cannot meet the implementation deadline. The group leader identifies that the interface design is actually ahead of schedule and reassigns student 5 to help with the hardware. With his help, the deadline is met.

Once all the separate parts of the project have been developed and tested, the various components are merged: the software interface is connected through the low-level drivers and the USB connection to the FPGA, which accesses the SD cards and the RAM, decodes the tracks, and sends the output to the D/A converters and the speakers. At first, nothing works, but with time the errors are debugged, except for one: the FPGA design has timing problems and is not able to simultaneously decode, output, move data from the SD card to the RAM, move data from the RAM to the MicroBlaze, and update the play time on the display every second.

Two solutions are possible: redesign the decode logic and the MicroBlaze program or reduce the functionality of the system. The first solution has to be discarded because of the little time left, so the second option is selected. As it turns out, removing the play time display routine is sufficient to allow the system to work. This is quickly done and the final system is described in the report, including the causes of the problem and the motivations for the choice. The system does not quite meet the specifications, but the loss of functionality is minimal and the effect on the final score is insignificant.

The demonstration and the presentation go seamlessly and the students are awarded their degree, with the additional satisfaction of going home with their very own OGG-Vorbis Audio player!

Entry Requirements

Entry Requirements

Applicants are normally expected to hold (or expected to gain) the equivalent of a 2:1 honours degree or above from a university recognised by the University of York. This degree should have a significant electronics and/or computing content. We are willing to consider applications from students with lower qualifications, particularly when the student has high marks in relevant modules and/or appropriate industrial experience.

For applicants whose native language is not English, the minimum University English language requirements of IELTS 6.0 (with at least 5.5 in each of the four language components) or the equivalent are required.

Teaching Materials

Teaching Materials

Example Lecture Notes

Almost all of the modules taught on this MSc provide the student with a set of lecture notes. This allows the student to concentrate on understanding the material covered in lectures, and provides time for discussion and questions of the information.

Take a look at a sample set of introductory lecture notes on Digital Design: PG Digital Design lecture notes (PDF  , 2,388kb).


Teaching Staff

The department prides itself on the quality of its teaching. Lecturers on the Digital Systems Engineering MSc include the following academic staff. Click on the links below to find out more about the staff, their backgrounds, and research and teaching interests.


Careers and Graduate Destinations

The MSc Digital Systems Engineering at York doesn't just give you an academic qualifications. It is also designed to enhance your employability and to prepare you for entering the world of work or research after graduation.

Some of the ways we do this are:
"I really enjoyed the course as I have learned many things and became more aware of how companies function."

Osama Eljade (MSc DSE)

  • Group projects which simulate project work within a company - working and problem solving in a team culminating in the construction of a complex device.
  • Work with industry standard tools to make you attractive candidates for prospective employers
  • Visits and careers talks from our industrial contacts
  • Lifetime support from the University Careers Service
  • Training in research methods and project management.
  • Opportunities to develop presentation skills and report writing.
  • Research led teaching - providing exposure to cutting edge methods from acknowledged experts.
  • Fully accredited by the IET (Institution of Engineering and Technology). Some employers recruit preferentially from accredited degrees, and an accredited degree is likely to be recognised by other countries that are signatories to international accords.
  • York Alumni Association provides support and opportunities to network with other former York students after you graduate.

QR code to link to Chinese Alumni WeChat pages.

For example there are currently around 500 active alumni attending social events and career talks in Beijing and Shanghai. Our networks are facilitated through WeChat with daily conversations occurring between alumni in China. To see our latest events in China please follow Yorkers_China . During the events in China you will find out how to join our WeChat groups.


What do MSc Digital Systems Engineering students do after graduating?

MSc Digital Systems Engineering graduates work in a diverse range of sectors. Graduates from this MSc are also trained in conducting original research and are therefore well prepared to undertake further study.

Pie Chart showing destinations of MSc DSE students up until 2015

Where do MSc Digital Systems Engineering students work after graduating?

Former students have jobs in big name companies from the UK and across the world such as:

ARM, Alcatel-Lucent, CSR, Elekta, HP, Lenovo (China), Mindeo, Qualcomm, Shanghai Electric Cable Research Institute, Snell and Xilinx.


Graduate Profiles

Have a look at our Taught MSc Student profiles to find out more about the career paths of some of our recent Digital Systems Engineering graduates.

Any questions?

Admissions Enquiries
Helen Smith

Postgraduate Admissions Tutor
Prof. Stephen Smith

(+44) 01904 324485