Applying to University: Done Your Homework Yet?

For those applying to university for Fall 2020 admission, there is some homework you should have done, or at least started by now. Arguably, this is probably the most important homework that you have, even if no one has explicitly assigned it or told you to do it. Properly done, this homework will make success in university more likely. So what is this homework?

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The Recycling Economy

Resource Recovery Partnership Conference

For the sixth year, I’ve been helping organize the “Resource Recovery Partnership” conference in collaboration with industry, government, and academic colleagues. This year’s event is on Thursday September 19, 2019, and registration is free for either in-person or webcast attendance. The final agenda is available, and anyone interested in the ideas behind sustainable materials, recycling, circular economy, zero waste, or materials and energy recovery might want to attend some of the webcast sessions. There are a range of speakers and panelists covering various aspects of policy development, technologies, and current statistics and trends. The talks are not highly technical, and anyone could benefit from some of the insights available here.

As our landfills (and oceans) fill with wastes, it has become clear to most people that solutions are needed to reduce wastes and to recover some value from the remaining waste materials. This is easier said than done, and requires a comprehensive approach incorporating technology, smart policies, economic drivers, and societal buy-in. These conferences have tried to bring together people from a wide range of backgrounds and interests, to try to advance progress in waste reduction. It’s a long and slow progress, but momentum seems to be building around the globe.

Campus Tours

Anyone considering applying to a university should visit it, if at all possible. Many people visit campus during the summer vacation period. This is convenient for travel, but not always the best time to get an impression, because most campuses are very quiet during the summer. Waterloo is a bit of an exception, since we have classes going throughout the summer for returning co-op students in engineering and other programs.

The fall is probably a better time for a visit, when things are more active and you can get a good feel for the campus in actual operation. Take a day or two off high-school classes and visit a campus! If you’ve never been on a campus visit try the closest one to home, even if you don’t intend to apply there. It’s good to get a practice visit so you know what to expect when you go to other places of more direct interest.

Of course, in some cases it’s not practical or financially feasible to visit a campus that you’re interested in. In that case, using online videos is one way to get a bit of a tour. I think that most universities have some sort of video tour availability. Here’s a recent video made by one of our own class of 1998 civil engineering alumni, Fanny Dunagan. It’s interesting to see what captured her attention when returning for a visit.

Enhanced Mobility Wheelchair wins first-place at the 2019 IDeA competition

A nice example of mechanical engineering students using their skills to solve real-world problems. See the link below for more details.

Five mechanical engineering students created the Enhanced Mobility Wheelchair for their 2019 capstone design project, and now their work is being nationally recognized for improving accessibility and inclusivity in Canada.

Wheelchair users often face challenges when deciding which device to use to get around. Regular wheelchairs are easy to manoeuvre, but hand-cycle wheelchairs offer better speed efficiency. The Enhanced Mobility Wheelchair team has designed and prototyped an augmented wheelchair that provides users with the comfort and maneuverability of a traditional wheelchair while offering the speed of a hand-cycle wheelchair. The novel drive system provides greater ergonomic support and promotes good posture even when the operator is tired. Selectable gear ratios greatly improve motion efficiency on a variety of terrain, helping those confined to a wheelchair go further and faster than ever before.

Source: Enhanced Mobility Wheelchair wins first-place at the 2019 IDeA competition | Waterloo Stories | University of Waterloo

HHT Awareness Month

Every day, week and month has a charitable or other cause associated with it. June is apparently Stroke Awareness Month in Canada, which is a good thing to be aware of because so many people are affected by stroke at some point, directly or otherwise. June is also HHT Awareness Month, although not many people have heard of it. That’s mainly because HHT is one of those less common conditions listed as a “rare disease” in the NIH GARD database and elsewhere. It is actually not technically that “rare” as it is believed to affect about 1 in 5,000 people, although possibly less than half of them know it.

HHT is Hereditary (i.e. genetic) Hemorrhagic (i.e. bleeding) Telangiectasia (i.e. small blood vessel malformations in the skin and mucosal linings), also known as Osler-Weber-Rendu Syndrome after the Canadian-German-French physicians who described it in more detail in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

The most common and noticeable symptom is frequent and spontaneous nosebleeds. Other complications include gastro-intestinal bleeding, chronic iron-deficiency anemia, stroke, heart and/or liver failure, and oxygen deficiency. The underlying reason is that a genetic mutation creates a problem with one of the proteins involved in blood vessel formation, leading to malformations in the skin, nose, liver, lungs, brain, intestines and elsewhere. This mutation is autosomal dominant, meaning that there is a 50% chance of passing it on to a child.

Although it is incurable, the symptoms and complications can be managed in a variety of ways, depending on the extent and degree of severity. There are HHT treatment centres scattered across North America and Europe, as listed on a website. The trick is recognizing that someone might have HHT, as many family physicians have never seen it and may not recognize the symptoms if they do see it. This is one reason why fewer than half know that they have it. Therefore the need for awareness, so that people can be diagnosed and treated before serious complications occur. In Ontario, there is an HHT Treatment Centre at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto (you need a referral from your family physician).

So if you or someone you know has frequent nosebleeds for no obvious reason, or unexplained iron-deficiency, check out the curehht website and consider following up with your physician, especially if it seems to run in the family.

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).

https://www.mcc-berlin.net/en/research/co2-budget.html
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.)