Flipping the Classroom: Bergeron Centre for Engineering Excellence
York University's engineering school is expanding and moving into an extraordinary new building. At the same time it is embarking on a radically different way of teaching engineering students.
From the Jan-Feb 2015 print issue.
Rising high and looking stunningly different from its neighbours, a new engineering building is nearing completion at York University in Toronto’s north end.
The Bergeron Centre for Engineering Excellence, due to open this fall on the large York campus is the home of the Lassonde School of Engineering.
The $100-million, 15,700-sq.m Bergeron Centre provides space for the expanded programs the school is embarking upon. But as well, the building is designed to nurture a whole new approach to educating engineers.
The engineering school is one of Canada’s youngest. It opened in 2012 with a donation from Pierre Lassonde, and for its first years focused on three special programs: space engineering (designing space exploration equipment and systems, satellite monitoring, etc.), computer engineering, and geomatics.
In 2013 the school took its first electrical students, and last year began mechanical and civil engineering. It has plans to add chemical engineering in a few years. By 2020 the school will grow from its current 1,600 undergraduates to around 2,000, and from 200 graduates to around 500.
The Renaissance Engineer
The school’s ambitions go far beyond numbers. It is driven by a whole new vision of what engineers can be and how they learn. Dean Janusz Kozinski, P.Eng., explains that its mandate is to create “renaissance” engineers, that is, engineers who are “rational, ingenious, passionate, confident, and creative.” He has a chart of 32 concepts that further define a renaissance engineer. He explains that the school is also dedicated to creating engineers who are entrepreneurs, oriented towards projects and practice.
These ideals are to be achieved by completely reversing the conventional teaching approach. The school contains absolutely no lecture halls. Instead of coming to campus and joining hundreds of other students listening to a professor at the podium, students will view lectures online.
“Because there is so much excellent lecture material available on the internet, what we wanted to do was deliver a substantial part of our program via the “flipping the classroom concept” says Dean Kozinski. “So what it means is that our students can take lectures wherever they are: at home, on the bus, in a cafeteria, on a train.”
“But when they come to our building,” the dean continues, “they are going to work in small groups directly with professors. Rather than solving problems themselves, they will be doing it together with professors. There is a substantial difference in the mentality of what we are doing.”
The new building has plenty of flexible meeting spaces and studios where the professor-student team collaborations can take place.
And in another stark difference from traditional engineering schools, first year students at York are not asked to stream into any one discipline. Instead, the dean explains: “We start with a passion project. They have to select what it is they are interested in, and we let them do it. Sometimes they create groups to do a project. Sometimes they do a project individually. But while doing this project it is natural that they will realize that they have to know more about some concepts in physics, or some mathematical expressions. So they are being introduced to science in a way that they are longing for it, rather than us imposing on them.” In this way the school hopes to avoid the syndrome where 18 and 19-year olds often become disillusioned in their first year by the grind of being in pre-defined programs.
All the programs are co-op, giving the students work experience, and the school has partnerships with York’s business and law schools, who provide special courses geared to engineering students. But the renaissance engineering education experience spreads wide. For example, “We also give our students an opportunity to learn about Latin American dance,” says the dean.
Building for a new pedagogy
The dynamic teaching approach has materialized in the building’s extraordinary architecture. The large five-storey structure sits on the west side of the campus, close to the Scott Library and next to the Arboretum and Stong Pond.
The dean and the architects, ZAS, describe the building being inspired by two metaphors: the “cloud” and the “rock.” The cloud is “an image of the building as something that is constantly changing,” thereby expressing “a fundamental curiosity shared by students and faculty.”
In building terms the “cloud” consists of a high curvilinear and horizontal form five storeys high, wrapped around the solid “rock” lower levels that are set into a sloping site and contain large civil engineering labs.
From a distance the “cloud” is a singular facade of glass and aluminum, set in random triangulated patterns. Paul Stevens, principal of ZAS, explains. “We worked with a mathematician to develop a facade which is random and with no particular order. But in fact there are really only three triangles.” The trwiangles are positioned, rotated and grouped differently.
The building’s main entrance and all the student social spaces are on level 1 and face south. They have panoramic views over the Stong stormwater retention pond towards Toronto’s downtown. Levels 2 and 3 include the design studies and flexible teaching spaces for electrical and computer engineering, as well as faculty offices. Level 4 below the green roof contains mechanical engineering.
The civil engineering labs in the lower level are “pretty rough and tough spaces,” buried within the building, says Stevens. They include a three-bay high square lab with heavy equipment for crushing and testing materials. (See article by Arup, the project’s engineers, on page 19).
Stevens says: “The biggest challenge was trying to come up with a unique building that fully realizes the aspirations of the university for its engineering program, as well as a building that needs to function very well and service quite a different education pedagogy. Most people think of an engineering school as “same old, same old, lecture rooms. This is far from it. There are a lot of Blue Sky aspirations for this project. It’s been challenging, but a lot of fun.” cce
Bergeron Centre for Engineering
Excellence Design Team
Architects: ZAS Architects
Civil, structural, mechanical-electrical engineers, ITC, and security: Arup (Richard Terry, Alan Duggan, C.Eng.; Lyonne Rippie, PE; Jennifer McArthur, P.Eng.; Aaron Savage, P.Eng.; Val Strong; Zoran Markovic, P.Eng., Svetan Veliov, P.Eng.; Francesco Agueci, P.Eng.; Tudor Munteanu; Asmir Alicelebic; Hassan Ally, P.Eng.; Reece McCorkindale; Walid Elsayed, P.Eng.; Justin Trevan; Fernando Neto; Peter Preston, P.Eng.; Derek Anderson, PE; Alex Hucal)
Facade: MESH (geometry); Blackwell Engineering/Faetlab (structure)
Construction management: Laing O’Rourke and Gillam Group
Landscape: Scott Torrance