Canadian Consulting Engineer

Education: From students to engineers

October 1, 2008
By M. G. (Ron) Britton, P. Eng.

The Association of Consulting Engineers of Canada --ACEC --has recently changed its name to the Association of Canadian Engineering Companies. A number of provincial consulting engineer organizations ...

The Association of Consulting Engineers of Canada –ACEC –has recently changed its name to the Association of Canadian Engineering Companies. A number of provincial consulting engineer organizations have followed suit. About a year ago the Canadian Council of Professional Engineers began operating under the title Engineers Canada.

As engineering organizations attempt to more clearly define themselves, the one constant seems to be the use of the word (in English) “Engineer.” Within the engineering profession, we attempt to clarify the

term Engineer and distinguish ourselves from technical groups by use of the term “design.” Our mantra has been that engineers, in the course of doing design, seek solutions to problems not answers to questions.

But viewed from the perspective of an academic, and operating within the research environment, answers to questions take priority over solutions to problems. Certainly the frequent discussions between academics and employers regarding the “job readiness” of our Bachelor degree graduates suggest a differing point of view between these two communities.

Every spring universities release a new group of alumni into the world of hard knocks. These graduates are the raw material from which future professionals will be developed. Like most raw material they are in need of refinement, but somehow the transition from student to contributing citizen seems to happen. The “properties” of any particular group within that raw material are defined by the curriculum they were exposed to.

Today’s graduates are much like we were when we graduated, long on academics and short on experience. Just like us they have spent four or more years after high school focused on classes, labs and exams that were intended to provide the basics. Given the limitations of time and the multitude of “necessary” subjects, they worked on constrained problems that had “right” answers. They, like us, learned how to get those “right” answers frequently enough to graduate. And for them, as it was for us, the work-a-day world turned out to be very different from school.

The transition problem has been the topic of discussion for as long as I can remember. Academic programs are accredited by the profession through the Canadian Engineering Accreditation Board to assure that graduates are academically qualified. After graduation, prospective engineers must gain practical experience prior to gaining a P. Eng. Yet in spite of these measures to assure the students “get what they need,” the discussions continue. And they usually focus on the programs at the various universities.

Prior to the launch of Sputnik, most engineering professors were individuals who spent their summers working as professionals. Many had their own companies and few had graduate degrees. This led them to develop programs that were very “applied” in nature. They brought their on-the-job experience to campus and used that experience to define how future engineers were educated.

When the space race began, all that changed. Suddenly science became the driving force on almost all campuses. Governments provided research funds in an attempt to find answers to questions and maintain an edge in Cold War technology. Universities responded by shifting their emphasis to research and post-graduate education. Within a decade, most academic staff held Ph. Ds and those who had experience in the practical design world became the exception.

Attitudes are shaped by experience and system incentives. Once people became involved in research, the test of performance became levels of funding and number of scientific papers produced. Graduates with Bachelor degrees were actively recruited into Masters and Doctoral programs. Their focus became research, not practice. Research seeks to find answers to questions, not solutions to problems. Upon graduation these people became the new professorate and they built careers based on what they knew. They also helped shape curricula that met the needs of their understanding of needs.

For the most part, then, engineering professors have developed their careers around research rather than practice. Their efforts have developed an improved understanding of the materials and systems used in the design world, as well as new analysis techniques that were founded on that understanding. Because of the depth of study that was necessary, the breadth of understanding narrowed. Undergraduate classes that grew out of the professors’ work have tended to focus on how to use the new tools. Some people off-campus began to refer to these classes as “sizing” classes. The criticism seemed to be that the breadth of the application was lost as the technical sophistication of finding the “answer” increased.

The concern about the loss of design skills went beyond the debates between academics and employers. Governments and professional associations were lobbied to do something about the situation. In response, in 2001, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) launched two unique programs called Chairs in Design Engineering and Chairs in Environmental Design Engineering. The NSERC website notes that: “The Chairs in Design Engineering program aims to improve the level and quality of design engineering activity within Canadian universities.” There is a similar statement, with the addition of “Environmental” ahead of “Design” for the Environmental Design Engineering Chairs.

There are a now about a dozen chairs funded under these two programs. Each chair is different with respect to its approach, but there is a common theme in terms of the motivation. Design chairs act as “design advocates” both on and off campus. Some chairs are focused on a specific academic program while others have a mandate that is faculty-wide. All are seeking ways to bring the broader definition of the design process into crowded academic programs. All are facing the difficulty of being outnumbered by academic staff who are focused on research.

Within the university research environment an NSERC grant provides credibility. But most NSERC grants are directed toward research programs that are by their nature more or less self-contained, affecting the grantee and his or her graduate students. On the other hand, the NSERC design chairs are supposed to have a general effect on the undergraduate and graduate programs.

A design chair grant provides $200,000 per year for five years, renewable once. That $200,000 must be matched from other sources, so in theory it makes at least $400,000 available to carry out the plans at each university. Unlike with other NSERC grants, the matching money can be made up in part by “in kind” contributions.

If the design chair program is to succeed it requires help from “outside.” If you as engineering companies truly want the new graduates you hire to be more prepared to fit into your world, we need you to provide us with assistance that will supplement the research experience of academic staff. The nature of this assistance will vary from site to site, but you can start by simply contacting one or more of the design chair holders near you and offering your help. Being guest speakers, design project mentors and reviewers, case study developers, or doing advocacy within your industry, will all make a difference.

You can find a listing of design chair holders on the NSERC web site A phone call to set up a meeting over a cup of coffee could provide the starting point for you to contribute to significant changes in engineering education in Canada.

NSERC has empowered some of us to begin swimming upstream. We can’t do it alone. If you stop and think about it for a moment, isn’t education too important to leave it to the academics?

Dr. M. G. (Ron) Britton, P. Eng. is Professor and Associate Dean (Design Education) and NSERC Chair in Design Engineering in the Faculty of Engineering at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg.


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