I manage the University of Waterloo’s Engineering undergraduate admission process, which has become one of the most competitive in Canada.  So, I’ve created this blog to help applicants and their friends and families understand more about how the admissions process works from an insider’s perspective.  I’ll offer news and insights throughout the year as we work through the next admissions cycle.  I’ll also comment on interesting items related to engineering research, education, and teaching from time to time.  Click the “Follow” button to the right to keep up to date on admission developments and information.  Comments are welcomed, but I can’t give detailed opinions on your specific circumstances or chances; please contact the university for expert advice.

Is Fort McMurray’s water supply contaminated by the wildfire? | Waterloo Stories

(Note:  an interesting story about my Civil Engineering colleague’s work with water supply and treatment.  Not something you would immediately think about when it comes to wildfires, but clearly a big issue.)

As residents try to resume their lives more than a month after a ferocious wildfire forced the evacuation of Fort McMurray, crucial questions about its impact on their water supply still have no clear answers. It’s why Monica Emelko, a University of Waterloo expert in water quality and water treatment, left for the devastated Alberta city last week after spending countless hours on the phone with government officials since the crisis escalated in early May.

Source: Is Fort McMurray’s water supply contaminated by the wildfire? | Waterloo Stories

Getting Ready to Learn

For some new university students, one of the most shocking and troublesome problems they encounter is the realization that they don’t actually know how to learn.  The strategies they used in high school no longer work well enough to succeed in a fast-paced and challenging university program.  Rote learning and memorizing solution methods for problems will generally not work any more, and a deeper level of understanding is required.  In some cases students can’t adapt fast enough and end up having to repeat courses or a term, or perhaps leave the university entirely.

That’s why I like and recommend this Coursera course, “Learning How to Learn”.    It’s from the University of California, San Diego and taught by an engineering professor, Barbara Oakley (and others).  I haven’t taken the course, but have seen quite a few parts of it a while ago.    For anyone starting university in September, this would be a worthwhile investment of your time, and will help identify good learning and study habits to use.   It’s probably good for high school students too, who are looking to do better.  (I think it’s free, or at least it used to be.)

The concepts the course covers are not revolutionary or unusual.  Most of our faculty would recommend the same things to first year students:  get enough sleep and keep a normal schedule; go to class; don’t procrastinate; set up a study schedule; engage all your senses in the material (seeing, hearing, doing/practicing, articulating); don’t get bogged down too long on one problem, etc.  But the course is nice because it presents the science and neurology behind these recommendations, and why they are important for learning and actually understanding the concepts more deeply.  Also, I thought is was nicely presented, interesting, and not difficult to follow.

Suggestions for Mathematics Review or Preview

Waterloo’s Centre for Education in Mathematics and Computing (CEMC) is known around the world for their Mathematics and Computing Contests (Fermat, Hypatia, Euclid, etc) and the workshops they arrange for students and teachers.   Since proficiency in mathematics is so important for engineering, we always support and recommend participation in those things.

More recently, CEMC has launched some online courses that are of potential interest, especially the Grade 12 mathematics and introductory computing courses.  There are two math courses, “Advanced Functions”  and “Calculus and Vectors”, and these are based on what Ontario high school students take (and similar to other Canadian provincial curricula).  “Advanced Functions” is what some curricula (like in the U.S.) would call Pre-calculus.

Our first-year engineering curriculum is based on the assumption that our in-coming students have a strong background in these two courses.  So for students starting engineering this September (whether at Waterloo or any other Ontario university) it might be a good review or test to go through the material and see how well you really know it.  For students starting Grade 11 this September, if you want something to do you could start working through the Advanced Functions course for a head start.  Maybe it will help boost your marks.

As I mentioned in another post, for students with no programming experience the CEMC introductory Python course would be useful, and having some experience with Web basics might be a good skill to have for future jobs.

Summer Preparations

For the new students joining us in September, it may be tempting to think ahead to a relaxing summer vacation before starting university.  Perhaps, but there are some things that you could or should consider doing.  They will make your life much easier in those first few months of university as you adjust to the new pace and demands of a co-op program.  So, here’s my list of recommended summer activities that will have you ahead of the crowd when starting university: Continue reading

Wrapping Up for 2016

It’s hard to believe, but we are pretty much done with the 2016 admission cycle and are starting to gear up for 2017.  I’ve been quite busy over the last few months with research and academic matters (and admissions of course, although this is actually only a small piece of what I do).  As one example, we recently organized and held our 3rd annual Resource Recovery Partnership Workshop for researchers, industry, and government people interested in solid waste management, recycling issues, and energy from waste opportunities.

As far as engineering admissions for 2016 went, here are a few potentially interesting observations:

  1. We met (or exceeded!) our targets for all the spaces in our programs.  There were very few offers available to be made from our waitlist, about 6 if I recall correctly.
  2. Most of our programs are packed to capacity for September.  We’re not able to offer any switches into programs like Software, Computer, Electrical, Mechanical, Mechatronics, Biomedical, or Systems Design.  This is why it’s so important for applicants to carefully consider what they want, and not rely on possibly changing programs later.  In many cases this will not be feasible.
  3. About 1 in 3 Canadian applicants received an offer.  About 1 in 5 visa student applicants were successful (it’s more competitive since there are  fewer spaces available).
  4. This year there will be over 500 females in the entering class, about 30% of the total, which is a new record high over the past couple of decades.  By program, some are around 45 to 65% female (Biomedical, Chemical, Environmental, Management, Systems Design), others are around 25 to 30% female (Civil, Electrical, Geological, Mechanical, Nanotechnology), and the rest are about 20% (Computer, Mechatronics, Software).  A big increase this year was in Mechanical, which has historically been in the 20% or less range, but Computer, Electrical and Software all saw increases too.  Just to confirm, we don’t have affirmative action or preferential admissions for females.  This is just the result of a decade or more of programs to encourage young women to consider study and careers in the STEM fields, and it seems to be working.

For those interested in 2017 admissions, there will be a few changes and new initiatives, and I will attempt to describe these over the coming months.

Final Round for 2016

An updated posting…

The final set of offers are getting posted to our online Quest system, and then to the OUAC application centre (there is a day or two delay between the two).  At this moment, a lot of the Ontario school applicant offers (Form 101) have been posted.  The Form 105 offers (for outside Ontario) are being processed.  The university hopes to have the majority of decisions posted by the end of next week (May 13).  Because there are thousands of decisions to process (in addition to just Engineering), it can take a while for it all to finish.

A suggestion about communications…if you’re an applicant waiting on a decision, the best thing to do is to monitor your Quest account and your email until you see the outcome.  It is not a good idea to phone or email the university at this point, as the staff don’t have any information to offer until the decisions are finished being posted.  We know it’s difficult to wait, but phone and email won’t get a result any faster.

As a quick summary for this year, we had just under 12,000 applicants for about 1,550 spaces, or around 7.5 applicants per space.  It’s actually a bit more complicated than that.  There were about 6 applicants per space reserved for Canadians and Permanent Residents, and almost 17 applicants per space for the 200 spots reserved for visa students, so that competition is quite a bit tougher.

Overall, with our space limitations and the number of applicants, we will be turning away over 2,500 applicants with a 90%+ admission average.


What’s New for April 2016

Things have been unusually busy lately, with coursework, research projects, student supervision, and admissions (of course).  So, this blog will suffer somewhat and my ability to respond to comments is limited.  But here’s what is new or coming up shortly:

  1. We recently said farewell to our Associate Director of Admissions, Ally Morrow.  An opportunity suddenly came up which was an excellent fit for her personal and career goals, and she is now the Assistant Director for MBA Marketing and Recruitment at the Rotman School of Management, University of Toronto.  Some of our Engineering graduates might encounter her if they want to pursue MBA degrees later.
  2. We are wrapping up the last of the AIF reviewing, for the ones that were submitted by the March 18 deadline.
  3. For the next few weeks we will be finishing up the review of transcripts and documents sent in for non-Ontario applicants.
  4. Once we receive the grades for the Ontario high school second semester (in late April) we’ll start the final round of offers.  The exact dates are uncertain, but offers will likely flow in the first week of May, together with our scholarship decisions too.

It looks like this year we received about 12,000 applications to engineering (not including our Architecture program), so that’s up about 1,500 from last year.  I anticipate that we will have lots of hard decisions to make in this final round of offers.

Capstone Design Projects 2016

It’s that time of year when senior, final-year students complete and present their “capstone design projects”.  These are group design projects, usually based on industry problems or student innovation ideas.  The projects are meant to be completely open-ended (i.e. there is no obvious, single, correct solution) and require students to pull together concepts from a variety of topics they have learned over the years.  The projects are not assigned, it is up to the student groups to come up with ideas, either on their own or through faculty or industry connections.  This is where co-op education really helps, because most of our students already have pretty good ideas based on what they have seen in their 2 years of work experience during university.

The design project results are presented in “Design Symposia” for each program, and there is a website which lists the dates in mid to late March.  These are open to the public, so anyone can drop by and see what’s up.  By clicking on each program, you can also find a brief description about each project.  For example, here is a list of projects in my department, Chemical Engineering.  I highly recommend that high school applicants and future prospects take a look at all these program listings.  These are the best source of information on all the different types of things that students can do, and the wide range may surprise you.  For example, many people think that Chemical Engineering is just about oil & gas, but when you look at the list you’ll see electric vehicle batteries, rooftop greenhouse design, biodegradable orthopedic implants, and controlled release antibiotics, among many other things.  Anything that involves materials and energy transformations is a possible chemical engineering project.

I like looking at the Management Engineering projects too.  These projects nicely emphasize that Management Engineering is not a business program (a frequent misconception with some applicants), but it is an engineering program full of math, statistical and data analysis, and optimization.  The project on “Reducing Distribution Costs for Canadian Blood Services” looks quite interesting to me (stochastic modelling is always interesting!).

I haven’t had a chance to look through all the different programs and their projects yet, but I’m sure a few will soon end up as start-up companies, if they haven’t already.  These capstone design projects have probably been the biggest single source of Waterloo start-ups in the last decade, I suspect.  There are now quite a few sources of financial support and design awards for the most innovative of these projects, as listed on the webpage, together with the support offered through the Velocity entrepreneurship and Conrad BET Centre programs, and others.