Recipe for Success in Cooking up Engineers

Getting involved with more than textbooks has been vital to innovation

Every engineering program strives for a measure of success. This can be in the form of test scores, scholarships or acceptance into graduate programs. A pretty solid indicator, however, is workforce integration. Where are graduates hired and what impact are they making on their field?

The University of Waterloo, located 70 miles west of Toronto, is not a school with centuries old traditions of excellence. It was founded in 1957. The traditions of excellence are much younger, but not less impressive.

As reported in PRiSM, the University of Waterloo, “… is Canada’s largest — and many would claim most progressive — engineering school, with 8,300 students, 245 faculty members, and a global reputation for excellence.” So what is Waterloo’s secret?

“Behind Waterloo’s rise to preeminence lies a singular historical focus on technological innovation, research, and industry partnerships. The co-op program, the world’s largest, has remained a core part of the curriculum since the university opened its doors.” An additional benefit is that students and faculty retain full ownership of inventions.

Getting students involved with industry and pushing research at the undergraduate level was key to this model. Getting good students and good connections gave it momentum.

As explained by Pearl Sullivan, dean of Engineering, “We don’t just want students who are academically strong but also people who are well-rounded and have a sense of the world.” Other, more established universities were suspicious of the co-op intensive program, but it is a big selling point for students.

Engineering undergraduates spend a third of their education (6 of 18 terms) working in industry. Better yet, they get paid, earning as much as $75,000 over the course of their two off-campus years. These work experiences often result in full-time jobs.

The same entrepreneurial focus has been given to improving engineering teaching and learning. The school is midway through its five-year strategic plan. Part of that plan involves investing more than $8.5 million to redesign and modernize undergraduate labs.

Also, the first-year program is undergoing significant change, including who teaches freshmen. Faculty development is now overseen by a new associate dean for teaching, and all prospective engineering faculty members must give a seminar or teach a class in order to assess their teaching potential.

Going to Waterloo is not a guarantee of success, but it is a good start. Even in its short history, the emphasis on entrepreneurship through undergraduate research and industrial experience has proved to be a winning combination. Although this is not the “traditional” method, engineering students are rarely interested in tradition.


Image courtesy of PRiSM