A Sample Co-op Experience in Chemical Engineering

Here is a story about one of our Chemical Engineering students, and some of his work term experiences in the petrochemical industry.  It’s typical of the variety of things that our students do during their 6 workterms over the course of our program.A Shell and Tube heat exchanger

by Shannon Tigert. A version of this piece originally appeared in the Spring 2013, ed. 2 issue of the Inside sCo-op newsletter.

Brodie Germain (4A Chemical Engineering) spent two rewarding co-op work terms at Suncor Energy. With his first two co-op jobs completed elsewhere, he was hired for his third work term as an Environmental Health and Safety Intern at Suncor’s wastewater treatment plant at the Mississauga Lubricant Facility. In this position, Brodie sampled the water the plant was using to ensure it was within government regulations.

Brodie’s position in his subsequent term at Suncor was Technical Services Intern, a support role for different engineers in the department. Each engineer is responsible for a different section of the plant, and by assisting all of them Brodie gained a variety of experiences.

A major project of Brodie’s during this term was a management of change analysis involving a heat exchanger problem; fluids passed through tubes to be heated and cooled. One of the fluids was picking up too much heat, reaching dangerously high temperatures. Various concerns and issues needed to be addressed, but Brodie appreciated the challenge. That’s because he connected what he was learning with things he had already done in school, like hydraulic calculations, collecting drawings and data sheets, and using logical thinking. Doing this kind of work was “as relevant as it gets” to his engineering degree, says Brodie: “I was able to find my strengths and weaknesses while developing my communication skills and technical foundations. A solid technical skills foundation is the most important practical thing to have as an engineer.” Continue reading

Why Do We Care About High School English?

Although Grade 12 English (or something equivalent) is one of our admission requirements, we sometimes get applicants who question what it’s good for, and why should it hurt their chances of admission if they got low marks in that subject.  After all, engineering is just about physics, calculus, problem-solving, writing code, designing bridges and other hardware, …, isn’t it? Continue reading

I want to be an engineer. What will my salary be?

Here is a slideshow from the Globe & Mail, showing interesting facts about engineering careers, including salaries and projected future demand.  It’s fairly generic, but might be useful to look at.



Comparing Software to Computer Engineering

Another installment from Prof. Patrick Lam, the Associate Director of Software Engineering.  A previous one compared Software Engineering to Computer Science. With these various posts, you should have a good overview of the differences and many similarities between the three programs. Note:  for Waterloo you can only apply to one of Software or Computer Engineering.  If you’re interested in Computer Science too, you need to submit a separate application for that program.

Comparing the BSE in Software Engineering to the BASc in Computer Engineering

Summary: Waterloo’s Software Engineering (SE) and Computer Engineering (CE) programmes are both CEAB-accredited Engineering programmes. After the first year (which is quite similar), Software Engineering takes a deeper and more Computer Science-centric view of the material and focuses less on hardware, while Computer Engineering provides a broader overview of material and includes more hardware content. You must have experience with writing programs to be admitted to (and to succeed in) Software Engineering.

Employment outcomes from SE, CE, and Computer Science (CS) are broadly similar. What you get out of a university education depends less on your specific courses and more on what you put into your courses, your interaction with peers, and your work experience. However, the programmes do differ. To help you choose which programme is the best fit for you, here are some of my personal observations about culture and courses. Continue reading

What do engineers actually do?

Some great real-life examples of what an engineer might do!

life as a woman in engineering

We solve problems… like…

Why is a factory conveyor breaking annually when it was designed to last 10 years? Is the same part failing every time? Is the part defective? Or is there a design flaw? Is it run and maintained correctly?

How thick should the glass be on the on the latest, greatest smartphone? Consider tradeoffs across multiple design parameters including drop tests, cost, weight, manufacturing capability, and clarity.

Customers are returning appliances all made between March and June for a burnt plastic odor. What is the source of the odor? Are all the products leaving the factory today going to have the same problem? Or was it confined to a single lot? What countermeasures can be put in place to eliminate the problem?

A plastic extrusion process is consuming 50% more energy in one plant compared to another. Figure out why and reduce energy usage.

Use stress analysis…

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Things People Say About Co-op

Engineering Five building at the University of...

Engineering Five building at the University of Waterloo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One of Waterloo Engineering’s major features for the past 50+ years has been the co-operative education system (“co-op”), where students alternate every 4 months (more or less) between academic classes on-campus and relevant work experience somewhere out there in the “real world”.  In our system, Engineering students get 6 work opportunities, therefore 6 x 4 months = 24 months of work experience before graduation.  There are various websites available giving more information and other details, including this one or this one.  Over the years I’ve heard a number of comments and questions about co-op, and thought it might be useful to summarize some of the common and interesting ones here.

Continue reading

Computer vs Software vs CS

What is the difference between Computer Engineering, Software Engineering, and Computer Science?  This is a perennial question and generates a lot of interest from potential applicants.  I had a post on this topic (and there is some very good discussion in the comments section that follows).

Some of our incoming first year engineering students have recently produced a nice blog post on the differences.  Since they recently went through the process of researching, comparing and contrasting the programs, it provides a unique perspective from an  applicant’s point of view.  Have a look at their post and blog here.

Note that at Waterloo, if you have interest in Software Engineering and Computer Science, you can apply to both and potentially have two different offers .

Comparing Starting Salaries

People are sometimes interested in “Return on Investment” (ROI) or “value” of their university education, and part of this analysis needs the expected salary after graduating.  Data within Canada seems difficult to find, so I sometimes look at surveys like that produced by NACE (the National Association of Colleges and Employers) in the US.  Their most recent result (April 2013) is available here in summary form (the full version requires a paid subscription, which I don’t have).

Summarizing the results for 2013, we see the reported average starting salaries for various broad areas (rounding off to the nearest $1,000):

Business:  $54,000
Communications:  $43,000
Computer Science:  $60,000
Education:  $40,000
Engineering:  $62,000
Health Sciences:  $50,000
Humanities & Social Sciences:  $37,000
Math & Sciences:  $43,000
Overall:  $45,000

In many universities, engineering and computer science tuition are among the highest of the programs, so it’s good that their starting salaries are the highest too, on average.

The survey also shows average starting salaries by industry sector.  The sector labelled “Mining, Quarrying, and Oil and Gas Extraction” had the highest value, at $84,000, while “Finance & Insurance” had the lowest at $53,000.  I think the first one is skewed by a pretty small number of highly paid jobs though, since there were only 1,100 new grads in that sector versus 100,200 in the Finance sector.

I don’t know how relevant or useful that information is on an individual level, but it’s interesting to look at.

Co-op Education: Try before you buy

In the Globe & Mail newspaper, there is a short opinion article about the value of co-operative education (i.e. a structured mixing of academics and work experience).  It’s written by one of our Systems Design Engineering graduates, Andrew D’Souza, who is now COO of the educational software company Top Hat (yet another Waterloo engineering student start-up).

Andrew’s points are similar to what Waterloo’s literature tries to get across, but he is much more blunt about it.  For example, in the article he says:

If university degrees came with a 90-day refund policy, I think we’d see a lot of unemployed students waiting in the returns line. Co-op programs are as close to a “try before you buy” deal as we’ll see in higher education anytime soon.

He also explains how he started in university with some pre-conceived notions about a career path, and how these quickly changed once he saw what it was actually like during a co-op work term.  Hence the “try before you buy” idea, and the remaining work terms are an opportunity to switch gears to alternative paths, as he explains.  When I talk to our students, this is a fairly common point that comes up in one way or another.

It’s an interesting article from someone with first-hand experience and a few years after graduation to reflect back on how it helped shape his path.

Who > Where

The Bank of Montreal (BMO) recently released an interesting survey (summarized here) that ranks the qualities that business leaders look for when hiring new grads from college and university.  Basically, the ranking is:  Personality traits > Skill set > Work experience > References > Degree/school.

Not particularly surprising.  Nobody is going to hire someone whose personality is a “bad fit” for their organization, no matter what their degree says or how great their reference letters are.  Likewise, a great fit with good experience and skills will get snapped up even if their degree is from the University of Neverheardofit.

I didn’t see any details, but I would assume that this ranking is based on an interview process.  How else would one determine the “personality traits”?  So what about the earlier stages of a job search, when employers are deciding who to interview?  I suspect the ranking remains similar but without the personality traits, i.e. Skill set > Work experience > References > Degree/school.  At least, that’s what I usually look for in the hiring I’ve been involved with.

The take-home message?  If you’re working on building your career, focus on the top three things (personality, skills, experience).  For the degree and school, do whatever works best for you and your situation, because it probably doesn’t matter all that much in the long term.  Just my opinion anyways.