It’s that time of year when senior, final-year students complete and present their “capstone design projects”. These are group design projects, usually based on industry problems or student innovation ideas. The projects are meant to be completely open-ended (i.e. there is no obvious, single, correct solution) and require students to pull together concepts from a variety of topics they have learned over the years. The projects are not assigned, it is up to the student groups to come up with ideas, either on their own or through faculty or industry connections. This is where co-op education really helps, because most of our students already have pretty good ideas based on what they have seen in their 2 years of work experience during university.
The design project results are presented in “Design Symposia” for each program, and there is a website which lists the dates in mid to late March. These are open to the public, so anyone can drop by and see what’s up. By clicking on each program, you can also find a brief description about each project. For example, here is a list of projects in my department, Chemical Engineering. I highly recommend that high school applicants and future prospects take a look at all these program listings. These are the best source of information on all the different types of things that students can do, and the wide range may surprise you. For example, many people think that Chemical Engineering is just about oil & gas, but when you look at the list you’ll see electric vehicle batteries, rooftop greenhouse design, biodegradable orthopedic implants, and controlled release antibiotics, among many other things. Anything that involves materials and energy transformations is a possible chemical engineering project.
I like looking at the Management Engineering projects too. These projects nicely emphasize that Management Engineering is not a business program (a frequent misconception with some applicants), but it is an engineering program full of math, statistical and data analysis, and optimization. The project on “Reducing Distribution Costs for Canadian Blood Services” looks quite interesting to me (stochastic modelling is always interesting!).
I haven’t had a chance to look through all the different programs and their projects yet, but I’m sure a few will soon end up as start-up companies, if they haven’t already. These capstone design projects have probably been the biggest single source of Waterloo start-ups in the last decade, I suspect. There are now quite a few sources of financial support and design awards for the most innovative of these projects, as listed on the webpage, together with the support offered through the Velocity entrepreneurship and Conrad BET Centre programs, and others.
There were a couple of unexpected mentions of Waterloo on the international stage recently. In the first one, our Prime Minister Trudeau used Waterloo as an example of Canadian creativity and innovation, at the World Economic Forum in Davos Switzerland. A video clip from that part of his speech is below. The Prime Minister points to our high intellectual standards, focus on entrepreneurship, and diversity. (I should clarify that when he says that 50% of our graduate engineering students are international, he’s referring to our Masters and PhD students. As I’ve pointed out elsewhere, we have only a bit less than 15% of our available undergraduate spaces available for visa students.)
In his speech, the Prime Minister refers to Sam Altman, President of Y Combinator, a Silicon Valley startup funder and mentoring program. Here is a video interview he did to explain why he is so interested in Waterloo students.
In another mention, British actress and UN Goodwill Ambassador Emma Watson mentions the HeForShe IMPACT Scholarships Waterloo launched last year, in support of increasing math and engineering gender balance.
Overall, it’s always nice for universities to attract attention for good reasons.
I’ve always intended to write about some research work, but never find the time. However, here is a link to a write-up by one of our staff writers. And a picture of me with a couple of my graduate level (i.e. Masters) researchers.
Waterloo Engineering’s chemical engineering research gives manufacturer a global advantage.
There is some impression out there that “nanotechnology” (and our Nanotechnology Engineering program) is all very research-oriented, with no practical applications or career prospects yet. Graduates can only look forward to doing lab research or a PhD degree. Those are certainly potential paths, but not the only ones by any means.
Nanotechnology has been around for about 30 years (see it’s history). In many ways, it’s just a specialized way of approaching Materials Science/Engineering, and there are already over 1,500 products on the market that incorporate nanotechnology. Making products requires more than just lab research, and one of the reasons we launched our Nanotechnology Engineering program was in response to industry needs for people with this expertise.
It also seems that the nanotechnology area is one where there is a lot of room for innovation and entrepreneurship by our undergraduate students. Here are a few recent examples (mainly based on senior design projects) that have led to start-up companies:
It’s interesting to see what creative new ways that nanotechnology can be used to make new products or improve existing ones. In my own research lab we are working with companies to develop novel test methods, based on nanotechnology, for detection of water contamination, and this is on the verge of commercialization. Some day soon I’ll finish a post on that topic.
So for a high school student thinking about different career paths, don’t exclude Nanotechnology Engineering if you’re interested in materials and commercial product development. It’s not all theory, lab work, and graduate research.
There was a recent article in the New York Times about the panic and anxiety surrounding applicants trying to get into the “elite” U.S. schools like Stanford and Harvard. It contains this interesting little comment:
I also spoke with Sam Altman, the president of Y Combinator, one of the best-known providers of first-step seed money for tech start-ups. I asked him if any one school stood out in terms of students and graduates whose ideas took off. “Yes,” he responded, and I was sure of the name I’d hear next: Stanford. It’s his alma mater, though he left before he graduated, and it’s famous as a feeder of Silicon Valley success.
But this is what he said: “The University of Waterloo.” It’s a public school in the Canadian province of Ontario, and as of last summer, it was the source of eight proud ventures that Y Combinator had helped along. “To my chagrin,” Altman told me, “Stanford has not had a really great track record.”
March is the season for “Capstone Design Project” presentations at Waterloo Engineering. These are events where groups of graduating students present and explain the design projects they have been working on for the past 8 to 12 months. Working on a significant, open-ended design project is a feature in all engineering programs in Waterloo and across Canada, to my knowledge. These “Design Symposia” are open to the public.
Where do the topics for these design projects come from? There are 3 typical sources: 1) some professors provide an idea, likely related to their ongoing research projects; 2) companies approach us with ideas that they would like someone to work on; 3) the student groups come up with their own ideas.
For companies, this is an opportunity to have some ideas explored in more detail and for free (other than some time spent). Many companies have some new ideas or side-projects that would be nice to do, but they don’t have the time or resources to follow-up on them right away. Having a student group work on it can help them scope-out the idea and see if it is worthwhile to pursue more aggressively in the future. For the students, they get more experience working on a real-world problem, possibly in an industry sector they want to learn more about. This can be a nice addition to the experience they already gained during their co-op work terms.
Student groups that come up with their own idea are often the source of new innovations and start-up companies that they build after graduation. At Waterloo, any novel idea that a student creates is owned by them. The university supports innovation and entrepreneurship, but doesn’t attempt to take it over in any way.
For high school students who are thinking about pursuing engineering, these projects are a good way to get a feeling for what you can do in the different disciplines. So check out these links for project titles or descriptions:
Here is an interesting story about some of our Nanotechnology Engineering students, who used their creativity and expertise in materials science to develop a business idea for a compound that warns you when you need to re-apply sunscreen. They won a $15,000 prize to help carry on building their start-up company.
There was another story a while ago about nanotechnology engineering graduates who were developing an improved de-icer compound for use in frost removal or control. Just a couple of examples of what nanotechnology engineering students do in the area of entrepreneurship.
Been kind of busy lately, with several active research projects, teaching courses, and admissions stuff of course. But here is a quick note about our fourth year (capstone) design projects for this year.
All engineering programs have a final year group design project, and this is the time of year when students showcase their results. For potential applicants to an engineering program, this is very useful to look at, since it can give you a sense of the type of things you might do in a program. Many of these fourth year projects are also the start of a commercialization effort by the students, so perhaps you’ll see some of these in the news in coming years.
This year, the Faculty of Engineering has made it easy to find out more about these projects, since they have created a one-stop webpage for all the programs. Have a look through some of the links for programs at that page. Not all of the programs have detailed project descriptions, but I think we’re working on it for future years. I think that the Management Engineering program has some of the best descriptions (and very interesting projects too).
Let’s start an informal contest here. Look through some of the project descriptions, and identify in the comments below which one you think is the “coolest” (if that’s a word people still use).