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

An Engineer’s Life (with 2 weeks experience!)

Some good advice and observations from a new Electrical Engineering student. Nice writing too!


Hello people! How y’all doing?

First of all, I got a new computer for school (Yayyy!). This is my first blog post in this new computer, so I thought I should talk a little about the necessity of getting a new computer for Engineering. I would not say that you really need a new computer for Engineering, but sometimes you do need to run software like AutoCad, programming compilers and so on. If you feel that your computer is very slow with multitasking, or that it has poor battery life and portability, I would probably start saving up for a new computer. Not something fancy for sure, but something that is able to manage everyday work and still handle some rigorous software needs. (My new computer, by the way, is a i5 core with 8 GB RAM and 1 TB HDD).

How’s Engineering, you ask? If I were to answer…

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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 .

Students’ use of laptops in class found to lower grades – The Globe and Mail

Below is an article summarizing a study that measured the potential negative effects of bringing a laptop to lectures, i.e. you end up with lower grades.  The study confirms what many professors informally observe, and what has been measured in other studies, such as a couple described in this document from Stanford’s website.

For note-taking in engineering classes, laptops are almost useless.  Pen and paper may be old-fashioned, but it’s still the quickest and easiest medium for quick sketches, free body diagrams, derivations of equations full of Greek symbols, etc.  We recommend (and some professors insist) that you leave the laptops at home or in your bag.

I see very few, if any, laptops in the lectures for the fourth-year (senior) courses I teach.  Since fourth-year students are the ones who successfully got through the first three years, that’s probably a good hint for first year students. Continue reading

A Guide to University Nomenclature

For new university students the academic world is probably rather confusing, partly because it is large, complex, and uses terminology that secondary school students have not likely encountered.  Here’s my quick reference guide to some of that jargon.  It’s somewhat specific to Waterloo, but many North American universities use something similar.  (In the interest of brevity, I’ll gloss over some details and hope that my colleagues don’t mind.) Continue reading

Pre-University Homework

For those who just finished high school and are starting university in September, here is some homework to complete over the summer.  It’s specifically for those starting Waterloo Engineering, but might be useful for other programs and universities too.  It’s not compulsory, and you won’t get any marks for it.  But if you do it, you’ll find yourself ahead of the class and much less stressed in September/October and beyond. Continue reading

Engineering Failure Rates

We typically get a few questions each year about our failure rate.  I’m never quite sure why people ask, or what they are expecting.  Do they want to hear that the failure rate is high, so they are convinced it’s a tough (and therefore good) program?  Or maybe they don’t want the failure rate to be high, because they are concerned that they won’t be successful?  I’m not sure what the motivation for the question is, but anyways let’s examine failure rates.  Continue reading

Learning to Code

My colleague Dana pointed out this nice little video promoting the teaching and learning of coding (i.e. programming) What Most Schools Don’t Teach . While it seems to be aimed at elementary or secondary school, I can appreciate the sentiment.

It’s not that everyone should be an expert in C++ or whatever. The idea I like is that learning coding or programming develops problem solving and logic skills. the ability to think in terms of algorithms, with inputs, outputs, loops, counters, etc. Even if you never need to code again, that is a useful learning process. Continue reading

Choosing An Engineering Program

The online application centre recently opened for our Fall 2013 intake, and we have almost 200 applicants already!  Like all of our applicants, they had to make that tough first decision:  which engineering program should I apply to?  That’s because Waterloo does not have a general first year.  The curriculum is discipline-specific right from the first day of classes.

The reason for this lack of a general first year is simple.  All of our programs are based on the co-operative education model (experiential learning), where you alternate between on-campus academic learning, and paid employment where you learn the practical aspects of engineering and business.  This starts in first year, so to make it work effectively you need to know  where your career interests probably lie.  This doesn’t mean you’re locked into something forever, but you need a starting point at least .

There are a few other advantages of starting in your program right away:  1) the people you meet will be your classmates for the rest of your program (and potential study partners, roommates, etc.); 2) your courses can be flavoured for your discipline, even if it’s a common course like calculus; 3) there’s no need to worry about competing for limited space in popular programs for 2nd year.

The downside of course, is that you have to do some upfront work before applying to Waterloo and decide which program most likely matches your interests.  For some people, they’ve known this for years and this is easy, but for others it’s a struggle.  So, for those people consider this to be your first Waterloo engineering homework assignment.

To help applicants out with this homework, our Management Engineering students created an online quiz a few years ago.  This quiz was developed based on an extensive survey of our current students, using data mining and regression analysis techniques they learned in class. It can be accessed at this website.  Based on your answers, it gives 3 possible choices for a program that might best fit your interests.  It’s not perfect of course, and you might not have any interest in some of the suggestions.  But it can be quite useful for identifying programs that maybe you hadn’t thought about before.  So, it’s sort of a screening tool to help narrow down your search a bit.

Once you identify a few programs of possible interest, you’ll have to do some further research.  A web search can be helpful, but here are a couple of sites that seem to have good information:  and   The more you read, the easier it will be to find some examples of careers and programs that seem like the best fit.  Other information sources include:  family friends or employers, visiting Waterloo or your local university and speaking to students and faculty, or possibly a teacher in your high school studied engineering.

If after going through all this you’re still ambivalent about the choices, there are lots of other universities with general first year engineering programs.  You can postpone your decision for another year by going there.

What if you start a program at Waterloo and then want to change your mind?  That happens, and we do our best to accommodate changes.  But we usually find that after going through this homework exercise, the vast majority of students are happy with their choice (probably 98%+).  So it seems that most people get the “right answer” when they do the homework.

Top Ten Ways to Fail Your Engineering Program

Classes will be starting shortly, and this is the time when new students typically get some advice for their future studies.  If you search around the web, you’ll find lots of blogs, books, forums, and pages with suggestions for how to succeed in university and engineering programs.  Rather than add one more, I think I’ll provide the following list for students who want to fail out and toss away the $10,000 (or more) it cost in tuition and living expenses to attend for a term.  These suggestions are based on many years of observation as an academic advisor dealing with failed-out students, so they’re guaranteed to work!  They are somewhat specific to Waterloo Engineering, but I bet that many will  work for other programs too. Continue reading