Zhou graduated from the Department of Precision Instruments and Mechanology of Tsinghua University in 1970. He entered the Mechanical Engineering Department of Huazhong University of Science and Technology (HUST) in 1978 to pursue his Master of Science degree. In 1980, he went to study at School of Engineering and Applied Sciences of the State University of New York at Buffalo and received his doctorate in Mechanical Engineering from the school in 1984.
The same year he returned to China, teaching and doing scientific research at the Mechanical Engineering Department of HUST. Later he was promoted to the post as dean of the School of Mechanical Science and Engineering. In November 1995, he was appointed as vice president of HUST. In June 1997 he became president of HUST and concurrently chairman of the board of directors at Huazhong Software Company.
In December 1999, he was elected an academician of the Chinese Academy of Engineering, and also into the Standing Committee of the Hubei Provincial Committee of the Communist Party of China (CPC).
From January 2001 to April 2002, he successively served the posts as Director of the provincial Department of Science and Technology, vice secretary of CPC Wuhan Municipal Committee, vice mayor, acting mayor and mayor of Wuhan.
In April 2002, he was appointed vice minister of education, and in March 2003 minister of education.
His fields of expertise include optimization design, CAD, digital control and CIMS technology and application. He has directed many major research projects and has received some 20 research awards at national, provincial and ministerial levels.