After writing a recent post about helium supply and demand, this news article came up about a new helium production facility in Canada. I wasn’t aware that it was under construction, but it’s nice to see some Canadian progress in securing supplies of this important resource. The photo shows some typical chemical engineering design elements like piperacks, process vessels, separators, compressors, etc. How to put together a process like this, in a safe, sustainable, and economical way, is one aspect of chemical engineering education.
Each year, final-year students in Canadian engineering programs pursue open-ended group design projects (“capstone design projects”). This gives them the opportunity to combine the knowledge and skills obtained over the previous 3 academic years (plus work term experience for Waterloo students), and to tackle a problem that is a bit more challenging and wide-ranging than what a typical course assignment can cover.
Our Chemical Engineering class of 2021 has finished up their projects, and some short introductory videos are available for viewing. As usual, the projects are student-selected and they cover a wide range of topics from food processing to low carbon energy systems, reusable plastics to automotive parts manufacturing, and biotechnology to metallurgical processes. Allowing students to pick their own project topic let’s them tailor their experience to an area of interest, that perhaps they want to pursue after graduation.
Anyone interested in chemical engineering, or learning about the wide variety of things that chemical engineers can do, should have a look at some of the videos. They are each only about 1 minute long, give a brief high level overview, and can be found at this link.
With the pandemic situation and the move to online classes by many universities, there is discussion about whether to defer starting university until 2021. This is a complex and significant decision, and an engineer (or prospective engineer) would typically use some sort of decision-making strategy. I’ve written about one decision approach, the Kepner-Tregoe method, in the past with respect to choosing a university. For the decision to defer starting university, let’s try a cost-benefit analysis method.Continue reading
My blog statistics show that an old post from 2013 on Engineering Failure Rates continues to be a popular one to visit. There is an updated one available too, from 2018. As those blogs note, the data is from Ontario’s CUDO website and their definition of “success” is rather broad. If you start in Engineering, and graduate within 7 years from the SAME university with ANY degree, that counts as success for degree completion. So, if you start in Engineering then switch and graduate with a degree in Music, that’s success. However, if you start in Engineering, then leave before graduation to complete a Veterinary degree at Guelph, that’s not a successful degree completion for their statistics. So if you look at those statistics, you need to be aware of what they actually mean (or don’t mean)!
Those statistics always bothered me, so I came up with an alternative measure of Engineering graduation rates, using the same CUDO data source. My hypothesis is that if we use the Engineering first year registration data for a certain year, and then compare that with the Engineering “degrees conferred” data four years later, then that will give us a rough estimate of “success”, specifically within Engineering programs as a whole.
So that’s what I did with downloads from the CUDO website, with the admission data from 2006 to 2012, and the degrees conferred data from 2010 to 2017. (I used a 5 year comparison for Waterloo, since our program takes 5 years to complete when you include the co-op work experience. All other universities can be completed in 4 years, so I used that comparison for the rest.) Based on this approach, we can summarize the results in the graph below, showing average degree completion rates. The “error bars” show plus and minus one standard deviation of the average “success rates” for each university (a measure of how variable the results are).
I call the graph “apparent success rates” because it still doesn’t use individual student data; it’s based on bulk numbers that can hide a lot of variables. Indeed, as we gaze at the graph we see some obviously puzzling results. The Engineering programs at Windsor and Lakehead are highly successful at graduating more engineering students then they admit!
Clearly there are some problems with this data analysis. For one, it doesn’t take into account the fact that some students at other universities can do an optional co-op or internship that will delay their graduation by a year. Secondly, it is based on first year registration data for each engineering program. This means that the students who transfer into Engineering from other programs within the University, or from other universities, are not counted. Likely this explains the ones where the graduation/success rates are over 100%, and may be a factor for those who have rates approaching 100%.
I have no deep insights into the other universities, but for Waterloo I know that in my experience we have extremely few transfers from other Universities, and very few from other programs at Waterloo. Therefore the average success/graduation rate at Waterloo of around 78% is likely a reasonable ballpark estimate for the fraction of new admits that graduate in 5 years.
This all just illustrates once again that defining “success” is complicated, and getting meaningful data to measure “success” is even harder. We just have to make do with what we can get, and recognize the limitations of the data.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Overall, 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
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.
The lessons listed in this blog link are good for students, and anyone for that matter. Plus it features a greyhound, one of my two favourite dogs.
I wasn’t always a dog lover. I used to be a dog-liker and most of the time a dog-tolerator. I never understood why people would get bumper stickers with their favorite dog breed and I …