Common First Years in Engineering

There are various ways of starting in an Engineering program in Ontario universities.  Some have a common first year, where everyone takes the same courses and then specializes in a discipline in second year.  Others specialize right from the start, or some variant of that.  Let’s look at a few examples:

Waterloo Engineering:  represents the one extreme, where students start in their chosen discipline right from the first day of classes.  We’ll call this “direct entry”.  Although there is some commonality in some courses (like calculus), there are enough differences between programs that changing disciplines can be difficult (or even impossible) and may cost extra time to make up missing material.  Upside:  you’re in the program that you presumably wanted right away, taking courses specifically aimed at your discipline, with professors from your discipline,  and with all the classmates who will be with you for the rest of the program.  Downside:  you need to do some serious research before applying, lest you end up in a program that doesn’t suit you and you can’t easily get into the one you actually want.

Queen’s Engineering:  represents the other extreme, where there is a common first year and people choose their discipline for the start of second year.  According to my understanding, students have a free choice of their discipline and can choose whichever one they like without limitations.  Very flexible.  Upside:  you can put off researching and choosing an engineering discipline until you’re already in university.  Downside:  the first year curriculum is a bit more generic, so if you already know what you want it is not so focused that way.  Also, from my faculty colleagues at Queen’s I know there can be some dramatic swings in class sizes in the various programs, depending on what’s “hot” in any given year.  From a teaching perspective, that can present some challenges in scheduling, allocating resources, etc.

McMaster Engineering:  has a common first year too, but the choices for second year are not as “free”, i.e. they have limitations and caps on programs (although their recruitment brochure doesn’t appear to mention this).   From their online FAQsIn Winter term, first year engineering students will be able to access the program selection system on Mosaic. You’ll need to rank your top 12 choices of programs. You will receive communication of the program you’ve received been assigned to over the summer” we can see that it’s another application process, presumably based on grades competition.  Some applicants to McMaster are offered a “free choice” that guarantees their first choice discipline after first year, if their admission average is high enough (mid-90s apparently).  Upside:  again, you can delay thinking about what you really want to do for a while.  Downside:  if you don’t have a “free choice” and first year doesn’t go so well, your options might be limited to the less “popular” programs.  Philosophically, I’m not so keen about the “free choice” mechanism, giving certain people an advantage because of what they did in high school and discounting current university performance.  Just my opinion.

Toronto Engineering:  has an interesting mix of direct entry to 8 programs and a common first year (called “TrackOne) leading to the same 8 programs.  They also have their Engineering Science program, which to some extent functions like a common first year for some students.  How’s that?  Well, about 30% of students who enter Engineering Science don’t continue, and seem to end up in one of the other 8 programs.  To illustrate, we can look at Toronto’s enrollment data, which they publish annually in their course calendar.  Let’s look at students who entered first year in 2014 and were in second year in 2015, and the numbers in each program are shown in this graph:









In this data, we see about 200 students in TrackOne in first year, then zero in their second year as they move into other programs.  Likewise, just under 300 students in Engineering Science in 1st year, then just under 200 left in second year.  So overall, about 300 students started in TrackOne and Engineering Science, and then moved into one of the other programs for second year.  It’s impossible to know from this data which students went into which programs, but you can see the overall effect.  The Computer and Industrial Engineering programs about doubled in size in 2nd year, and Mechanical Engineering grew quite a bit too.  Oddly, the Mineral and Materials Engineering programs decreased in size, but this is just one specific year of data so I don’t know if any of this is a consistent pattern.

The total enrollments in 2014 and 2015 are given as 1,235 and 1,255, respectively.  It’s not clear where the extra 20 students came from, or how many left Engineering after first year (either voluntarily or not).  Enrollment data is always quite complicated, so the best we can do is look at general trends and features.

Conclusions:  other engineering programs in Canada tend to follow similar practices to one of the four examples above.  Which one is best, common first year or direct entry?  Both and neither.  It all depends on individual circumstances.  As a potential applicant, make sure you fully understand how each university operates, and what the limitations might be.  If you have done your research and are relatively confident about what you find most interesting, then consider the direct entry route.  If you can’t be bothered doing the research, or still can’t decide between vastly different disciplines, then maybe a common first year is a safer bet.  The main point is be informed.  The ancient principle of caveat emptor does apply to university admissions too.

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