The Ring

In this engineering course, people skills are a design solution

Tue, 2013-12-03 14:22

Students in ENGR 110 Design and Communication.
Teamwork required. Jayaram Subramaniam (TA), Timothy Salomonsson and Todd Schmid in ENGR 110 Design and Communication.
Spaghetti-stick tower construction.
Thomas Barber, Ryan Warner, Dylon Turner and Shima Shir build a spaghetti-stick tower. Photo: Armando Tura

Aspiring engineers at the University of Victoria are getting something most of their peers across Canada aren’t—hands-on experience from real-world professionals in their first year of post-secondary education.

The ENGR 110 Design and Communication course is mandatory for all 400-plus first-year engineering students, and focuses on introducing principles of design engineering through practical projects with an emphasis on teamwork. Through a series of labs and lectures, some of which are instructed by community and corporate partners, students get an opportunity that many Canadian universities don’t offer until third or even fourth-year courses.

Mechanical engineering professor Dr. Peter Wild holds one of a dozen Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) Chairs in Design Engineering, and part of his focus has been “getting to the fun stuff earlier,” he says.

“ENGR 110 presents a glimpse of some of the important elements of engineering practice that will not be apparent from other more technically focused courses,” Wild says.

The local arm of Schneider Electric is among the key corporate partners, with company rep Jordon Dagg volunteering his time to present lectures and labs for the last few years. With the course becoming mandatory this year, he upped his involvement and presented two lectures as well as 14 two-hour labs to include all incoming students.

Dagg’s goal is to teach about team dynamics and other so-called “soft skills” that are absolutely crucial to success after graduation.

“In the lecture, we talk about forming, storming, norming and performing—the four stages you go through with team-building,” Dagg says. “We’re trying to get students to understand there’s more to it than just getting together and doing a project.  They’ve got to learn to work with all sorts of different people who all have different ideas.”

Their task in the lab is spaghetti-stick tower construction, a project more often in the realm of elementary school classes, but it’s less about proving their engineering prowess than about the dynamics of the teams, formed as groups of five or six.

“It’s a few more than the ideal number, but that’s the point. We want them to experience the challenges of teamwork and trying to make that work,” says Dagg, adding that he also relates experiences from his own career to help provide real-life perspective. “It’s very much about understanding what’s in your toolbox and then using it when the situation arises. The more students that come out with that type of experience, they’ll have a few more tools to be able to work with.”

Students also get a chance to have real-world impact through a project with the Capital Regional District, which tasked students to come up with ideas to improve cycling infrastructure and accessibility. The top 15 infrastructure suggestions were showcased Dec. 3 at CRD headquarters as students pitched their plans to a panel of judges for chance to win prizes and have their idea shared with local government professionals and decision makers.The assignment restricted projects to a $250,000 budget, but gave wide latitude for imagining a new idea or improving existing physical infrastructure to encourage cycling by making it safer and more accessible.

“There’s no shortage of ways to make cycling easier, safer and more enjoyable,” says Wild. “Our goal in collaborating with the CRD was to help generate fresh ideas, make more people aware of the various challenges and solutions for cycling in our community, and offer these first-year students an applied-learning opportunity early in their engineering education.”

With this kind of fun, experiential learning, the hope is to sustain student interest in engineering through a busy and academically challenging first-year program. Other partners include Viking Air, Starfish Medical and Bic Canada.