I teach in the Chemical Engineering program, and formerly managed Engineering’s undergraduate admission process.  On this site is a collection of past posts about admissions, and  I’ll continue to write about issues  related to engineering research, teaching, education and admissions from time to time.   Comments and general questions are welcomed, but I can’t give detailed feedback on your specific circumstances.  Please contact the university for expert advice related to current admissions and see The Road to Engineering for posts from the current Director of Admissions.

Spending the Carbon Budget

Everyone is familiar with the idea of a “budget”.  It’s the amount you can afford to spend or allocate on certain things.  Once it’s all spent, that’s about it unless you overspend and are prepared to face the consequences like debt or bankruptcy.

The Paris Climate Accord seeks to limit global average temperature rise to 2°C, or even better 1.5°C (it’s already risen about 1°C).  One way of looking at it is to estimate (from the physics of climate) how much more carbon dioxide we can afford to emit into the atmosphere.  That’s our “carbon budget”, and if we overspend this budget the laws of physics will make it impossible to keep the temperature rise below our desired target.

One research institute in Germany has created a nice carbon budget clock.  It shows, based on the remaining budget and the rate of “spending” (i.e. emissions), how much time we have left until the temperature target becomes an impossibility. Here is a recent screen-shot of the countdown clock (click on the link for a live version).

Carbon budget remaining for 1.5C target, as of May 14, 2019.

Unfortunately, there is less than 9 years until we blow the 1.5°C budget.  This doesn’t mean the global average temperature rise will suddenly jump to 1.5°C, but it means that it will eventually rise that high and there is essentially nothing that will stop it.  Like with gravity, the laws of climate physics can’t be broken.   However, if we can slow down the spending (emissions), we can stretch our budget out over a longer time.  So far that hasn’t been happening, as seen below in the emissions graph from the past 20 years.

Engineers and others have the knowledge and ideas to reduce the carbon emissions rate.  We just need the collective societal will and government leadership to do so.  Hopefully well before the carbon budget is already spent, because it will take time.  Here is a rough estimate of where the temperature is heading over the next couple of decades based on current rates.

Very rough estimate of future global average temperature rise, from Berkeley Earth project.

It looks like we will reach 1.5°C around 2040, and 2°C around 2060, unless emission rates drop significantly and soon. That won’t stop the rise, only delay it somewhat. Achieving net-zero emissions is the only way to stop the rise. Unfortunately with the current leaders (and prospective leaders) in Canada and around the world the hope for emissions reductions seems dim. So, prepare for the continuing consequences.

Waterloo Engineering is Now 529 Eligible

I’m told by our Registrar that the University Waterloo is has recently been approved by the US Department of Education.  For US residents interested in our engineering programs, this means that they will be able to use their 529 plans for tuition and some other eligible expenses at Waterloo. (For Canadians readers, this is like our RESP investments, although I’m sure there are various differences.)

We were aware that this lack of ability to use 529 plans was a bit of a barrier to some prospective US students.  I’m glad we were eventually able to remove this barrier for the future. (Thanks to our administration, as I understand this takes significant effort and time to meet all the US government documentation requirements!)

The one continuing issue is that US students in engineering will still not be eligible for US federal financial aid, because their rules don’t permit online learning as part of a program.  Our co-op engineering programs employ a work-integrated experiential learning model, where students do some small online courses during their work terms in industry.  So for now, US federal financial aid is out for engineering, but 529 plans are OK.  With the income from our paid co-op work placements,  students might not qualify for much (if any) financial aid after first year anyway.

(P.S.  all of Waterloo’s other regular programs probably qualify for US federal financial aid purposes.  It’s just our co-op programs, like engineering, that don’t at this time.)

Selecting Your Offer

Offers to Ontario engineering programs will probably be wrapping up over the next two to three weeks (mid-May?).  Then people have until some date in early June to pick the one they want (see your offer or  OUAC for specific deadlines) and put down some sort of deposit.  It seems like most people apply to multiple universities and programs these days.  In the “old days” you could only apply to 3 in total, but I think the average now is around 5 or 6.  I’ve seen some applications in the high 20’s!

So assuming you have 2 or more offers to choose from, how do you decide?  Ultimately it’s going to be a very personal decision, but here are a few common factors to consider:

  1. Program:  do you really know what it’s about, and how well it fits your interests, skills and temperament?  Ignore your family and friends ideas about the “best” program for the future and jobs.  It’s your future.
  2. Location:  is quick and easy travel back home on weekends important to you or necessary for some reasons?  Or, are you fine with staying away for weeks and months and connecting by Skype or whatever?
  3. Costs:  some programs are expensive.  Some cities are expensive to live in.  How do the total costs add up for your budget?  Is there an internship or co-op program to help with the costs, and how much does it help?
  4. Facilities and Extracurriculars:  is there something that you really want or need to do, apart from the academic program?  Does the university have that opportunity available?  Are there clubs or sports opportunities that you are particularly interested in?
  5. Scholarships:  are these important for your budget and affordability?  Did you get a really big scholarship spread over 4 years?  If so, are there performance conditions, such as maintaining an 80% average?  Note that many students have difficulties maintaining these averages, so the scholarship may not  really be that reliable for future budgeting purposes.
  6. Prestige:  studies from the US generally show that going to a “prestigious” school has no particular influence on career (with the possible exception of politics).  Ignore “prestige” or rankings and go for the place and program that is the best fit for you and your interests.  An engaged and interested student will always do well wherever they are, versus a miserable student at a “prestigious” university or program.
  7. Other? Possibly there are some other factors that are more individual?  I can’t think of any more general ones at the moment, but suggestions in the comments are welcomed.

Why Engineering is Purple


Some purple students at a Waterloo Engineering event (from engsoc.uwaterloo.ca)

Waterloo’s official colours are black, gold and white, but you might have noticed that Engineering’s brochures, websites and other material have a lot of purple.  Sometimes I’ve been asked why that is, or why we are using Wilfrid Laurier or Western University‘s colours.    The main explanation is that sometimes our students are purple, as illustrated in the picture, so why not use that as our theme colour?  But there are purple engineering students at other universities like Queen’s, so there is more too it than just that. There is a bit of a long explanation that can be given in more detail as follows.

Continue reading

The Cost of Tuition Savings

A few weeks ago the Ontario government mandated a 10% tuition roll-back for domestic (i.e. Canadian and Permanent Resident) students.  I wrote a brief blog post about first impressions.  Although the government is on a deficit reduction path, this move was kind of strange since it doesn’t seem to directly save the government much, if any, money.

I guess the intention is to save the student and families some money, which is nice, but it comes at a cost.  That cost is now becoming clearer, according to internal news at Waterloo.  Basically, to deal with the cut in the 2019/2020 budget year (just about to start), there needs to be about a 3% cut in expenditures.  This is just the start for this year, as there is still an ongoing deficit in the following years to be dealt with.

A cut of 3% doesn’t seem like too much in the corporate world, where there is usually some profit margin and other reserves to work with.  Universities, being non-profit, have much less flexibility though.  So there are two main areas where cuts can take place within an academic department like Chemical or Mechanical Engineering…

Discretionary Spending:  this would be stuff like photocopying (already largely gone), refreshments at seminars and events for students, support for student travel to conferences and competitions, telephones for graduate student offices (already gone in my department), travel costs to bring in seminar speakers from other universities and countries, various other little things like these.  There is actually not a lot of money spent in these areas, as far as I am aware, so not a lot of savings are to be had.

Faculty and Staff Positions:  The vast majority of spending in an academic department is on salaries, something like 80%+ if I recall.  Therefore to hit a 3% cost savings likely requires something close to a 3% reduction in personnel.  The news article refers to this as a “return of open positions”, which essentially means permanently shrinking the personnel levels by not replacing people who leave or retire (unless new funding becomes available at some future point).

For the Faculty of Engineering, with 318 faculty members, this would mean dropping about 10 positions through attrition.  Roughly speaking, that is equivalent to 26 courses that can’t be mounted, as well as fewer available supervisors for student projects and graduate student research.  For an engineering program, you can’t stop teaching the core undergraduate courses, so the loss of courses would be primarily in electives and graduate courses.  The overall effect will probably not be immediately noticeable to most students, but eventually there may be fewer elective courses to pick from in upper years.  There are some mechanisms to try to reduce the impact on course availability, but we’ll see what happens next I guess.  According to the news item, the 2020/2021 budget year may require further cuts because of an ongoing structural deficit.

The one thing I haven’t mentioned above is research.  That’s because research isn’t directly funded from tuition, it comes from government and industry grants and contracts for specific projects.  So I wouldn’t expect any immediate effects on research activities and conference participation by graduate students and faculty.

U Waterloo #13 Worldwide!

The latest university ranking scheme is one from Times Higher Education (THE) and their University Impact Rankings for 2019.  This new ranking is based on the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals and how well each university contributes towards meeting those goals. According to a news summary, Waterloo does particularly well on 4 of the goals, namely Partnership for the Goals, Sustainable Cities and Communities, Climate Action, and Reduced Inequalities.

Listing of the 17 Sustainable Development GoalsOverall, Canadian universities score well in these sustainability rankings, with McMaster #2, UBC tied for #3, University of Montreal tied for #7, York #26, and Toronto #31.  McGill comes in somewhere in the 101-200 range.  I haven’t spent any time looking at the details yet, so I’m not sure what contributes to some of these rankings.

A lot of the “top” US universities didn’t participate in these rankings, so it’s hard to make many comparisons.  The top 3 ranked US colleges in these rankings were U of North Carolina at Chapel Hill at #24, Arizona State at #35, and U Maryland Baltimore County at #62.  I’m aware of these places because they have strong STEM programs and research activities, but most Canadians probably aren’t aware of them.  Perhaps next year more US colleges will participate.

In general, sustainable development is an important goal and increasingly a part of engineering education and practice.  Engineers Canada, the body responsible for accreditation of engineering education in Canada (among other things), has a national guideline on sustainable development for professional engineers published in 2016.  Various bits and pieces of this are already built into our curriculum for chemical engineers (and I assume in other disciplines), but there are further improvements we continue to work towards.


For further news details:  https://uwaterloo.ca/news/news/university-waterloo-among-top-schools-world-social-and

Co-op student creates “bot-tender” on his first work term

An interesting story about a co-op student’s first work term. Getting that first job can be a struggle, but first-year students can be much more innovative than some people give them credit for.  


By Jillian Smith.

Caleb Dueck, a first work-term co-op student in mechatronics engineering, created not one, but two robot bartenders while working at Eascan Automation in Winnipeg. The pair of robots, one for pouring and one for serving, can pour a perfect pint in just a minute and a half.

Eascan Automation partnered with a local brewery where the “bot-tenders” made their first public appearance last month. Dueck spent hours programming the robots before the launch and said “I was so pleased to see how many people took videos and enjoyed using the robot. What I enjoyed most is when co-workers were impressed. It made me proud of the hard work I had put in.”

When searching for his first co-op job, Dueck reached out to many companies in Winnipeg before securing a job at Eascan Automation. “Though I had to wait longer than I would’ve liked for this job, I’m very glad that I did. I have learned so much about industrial automation, the different methods and components that are employed, and how to program collaborative robots and PLC’s,” said Dueck. Dueck shared that he feels happy to be a part of the University of Waterloo’s co-op program and to have such an impactful and innovative experience in his first work term.   Dueck’s contributions to his co-op employer don’t end with the robot bartenders. Dueck said, “My next large project is to make a cart that has all the necessary electronic components necessary to run tests on in-house projects. Today I’m off to help at a milk bottling company by programming a servo that will adjust the weight of milk put in.”

Dueck is looking to have a future career in product development, where he can continue to use the skills he has learned at Waterloo and on his co-op work term to help make more physical system designs.Learn more about Eascan Automation.

Source: Thursday, March 28, 2019 | Daily Bulletin | University of Waterloo