Re-engineering Queen's

Queen's Faculty of Engineering and Applied Science needs to increase focus on design-based solutions in order to equip graduates for the job market

According to the Engineering and Applied Science website, the Integrated Learning Centre aims to “support new and exciting initiatives in undergraduate engineering.”
According to the Engineering and Applied Science website, the Integrated Learning Centre aims to “support new and exciting initiatives in undergraduate engineering.”
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The spirit of any post-secondary engineering program, Queen’s included, is design-based.

We’re told that as engineers, we’ll be required to find creative and innovative solutions to problems and that our education will help us gain the skills and knowledge necessary to succeed in the workforce.

In reality, the Engineering program fails to prepare students to become actual engineers. Innovation is discouraged, as is creativity.

Design, a concept that is paramount in many engineering jobs, is barely touched on.

Instead, the faculty at Queen’s focuses almost solely on mathematical and technical proficiency.

After graduation, many students are only qualified for basic jobs that apply existing solutions. These students lack the ability to design unique solutions to any type of problem. It seems ironic that a program meant to teach the design of creative solutions does the exact opposite.

It’s not just that creativity and innovation aren’t taught — these concepts are, in fact, systematically discouraged.

Students are tested rigorously and repeatedly on questions with only one possible answer. There’s little, if any, room for a creative solution.

How often do engineering students take risks to solve a problem? Virtually never. Ask those same students how many times they’ve memorized a step-by-step solution, though, and the answer is the opposite.

It’s a strange phenomenon. We’re told to think outside the box, but the nature of our coursework requires us to think very much inside the box.

The process of design is, at least in my time at Queen’s, barely taught. Students learn the math behind an existing solution only to move onto a more complicated solution.

Rarely, if ever, are students asked to design their own solutions from scratch — a skill that is critical in any real-world engineering job.

That being said, Queen’s Engineering students do have some opportunities to think creatively. For example, there are various design teams and competitions available to Queen’s Engineering students that allow for creativity and innovation.

The problem is that these extracurricular studies aren’t requirements to earn an Engineering degree.

Another design opportunity offered to Engineering students is a mandatory design project in fourth year. The potential of this exercise isn’t fully realized, however, as the focus tends to be simply the process of completing a project, not the actual design or creativity of the project itself.

Of course, there are valid reasons for not stressing the core principles of design and innovation in an engineering program. First, proficient knowledge of math and sciences are important, and engineers are expected to be competent in these areas.

I agree that students should be taught these fundamental skills — I just don’t think they should be the central end-goal of an engineering education.

Limited resources also factor in to the structure of the Engineering program. It’s much easier to mark a question that has a single correct answer compared to open-ended questions that encourage creative thinking.

Marking 30 different critical answers is significantly more difficult and time-consuming than marking 30 answers true or false.

In addition, the art of design is inherently a back-and-forth process that would require more faculty-to-student interaction. This is made difficult in a time of high student-to-faculty ratios.

Designing questions that test required material in creative ways also challenges instructors’ test-making abilities.

Despite these constraints on the Engineering program, we should expect more. The problem isn’t just at Queen’s — it’s Canada-wide.

In today’s dynamic globalized world, basic skills and technical competency will be purchased from the cheapest source, such as China and India.

Those are the skills that are currently being taught in engineering classrooms at Queen’s.

What is truly in demand, and where Queen’s should be placing its focus, is on original thinking and interdisciplinary problem-solving.

The ideal engineering degree would be taught like a liberal arts degree. In the arts, students learn how to think critically and apply knowledge and information.

The process of design should be taught alongside applied science and mathematics, incorporating a back-and-forth process similar to that of writing an essay. Students should be given questions with more then one answer and creativity should be rewarded, not punished.

The implications for these faults at Queen’s — and in other Canadian engineering programs — are vast. If we don’t begin to teach graduates how to take technical proficiency in math and sciences and apply these skills to real-world situations — often where there are multiple solutions of varying complexity — we risk falling further behind programs in other countries.

Top-tier programs in the US, for example, have been able to teach their engineering students the design and creative skills necessary to become global leaders in a knowledge-based economy.

Queen’s needs to rethink the way it delivers engineering education in order to pave the way for the rest of Canada. If we don’t, our Engineering program is at risk of becoming irrelevant.

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