So, about this Googler’s manifesto. – Yonatan Zunger – Medium

Anderson:  Ignoring the underlying controversy for the moment, I found these excellent two quotes about the nature of engineering work.  I would say it’s applicable to every engineering discipline, beyond just software.  Very useful concepts for high school students to understand if they are thinking about an engineering career.

Engineering is not the art of building devices; it’s the art of fixing problems. Devices are a means, not an end. Fixing problems means first of all understanding them — and since the whole purpose of the things we do is to fix problems in the outside world, problems involving people, that means that understanding people, and the ways in which they will interact with your system, is fundamental to every step of building a system.


Essentially, engineering is all about cooperation, collaboration, and empathy for both your colleagues and your customers. If someone told you that engineering was a field where you could get away with not dealing with people or feelings, then I’m very sorry to tell you that you have been lied to. Solitary work is something that only happens at the most junior levels, and even then it’s only possible because someone senior to you — most likely your manager — has been putting in long hours to build up the social structures in your group that let you focus on code.

Source: So, about this Googler’s manifesto. – Yonatan Zunger – Medium

What U.S. Campus is Most Like Waterloo?

In a recent post about rankings, I showed that Waterloo often appears in the rankings alongside colleges like Penn State, Texas A&M, Purdue, UCLA, Michigan, etc.  So perhaps the next question is, “how does Waterloo look and feel compared to these or other colleges?”.  Rankings are one thing, but if you don’t like the environment then the ranking probably doesn’t matter.  By “look and feel”, I mean the general campus environment (architecture, space, etc.) and situation (urban, suburban, rural, etc.).  Waterloo is a fairly young university (just 60 years old this year), located within a medium sized city (population about 380,000 if you combine the twin cities of Waterloo and Kitchener), so how does that compare with those places? Continue reading

Rough waters turn to smooth sailing for student team

UWAST’s autonomous sailboat in action

Anderson:  I didn’t know we had a robotic sailing team!  I learn something new every day. 
Source: Rough waters turn to smooth sailing for student team | Engineering

By Nancy Harper

The University of Waterloo Autonomous Sailboat Team (UWAST) may be new to robotic sailing, but like every hardworking engineering team with one eye on the horizon, its goal is to win, not just compete.

That mindset served UWAST well in June at the 2017 International Robotic Sailing Regatta in Annapolis, Maryland.

UWAST team members Seamus Johnston, Richard Li and Jessen Liang are congratulated by event chairman Paul Miller (left).

With five main challenges over five days, UWAST members proved they were up to the task of facing seasoned veterans. The team finished sixth overall — not bad for a university that had entered this kind of international competition just once before in 2006.

Team leads Richard Li and Seamus Johnston were joined by Lily Liu, Jessen Liang, Jonathan Parsons, Chris Carnduff, Trevor Van Leeuwen, Dominic Faryna and Julian Howarth, plus faculty advisor Professor Jan Huissoon.

Representing the full spectrum of engineering – from mechatronics and mechanical, to electrical and chemical – members are optimistic they set the stage in Annapolis for future success. Continue reading

Water Testing: From Research to Kickstarter

One focus of my research group’s efforts over the past 10 years has been collaborative R&D with small and start-up companies.  They often have some very interesting ideas and needs, but lack the facilities and technical team to do the work in-house.  So this is a perfect opportunity for us to help them out with creating new businesses and for my students to get some “real-world” research experience with commercialization projects.

One major effort has been in the development of nanotechnology for rapid water quality testing, in particular for bacterial contamination.  Traditional laboratory methods require 3 to 7 days to complete, which is a rather long time to wait if you’re concerned about your water quality.  Through our collaborative R&D projects, we’ve developed a test method that can give an answer in a few minutes.  This rapid feedback allows people to make informed decisions about what to do next, whether to treat the water further, or send samples to a lab for more extensive testing, etc.

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Prototype ExactBlue water testing system.

One recent development is the creation of a more automated, smart-phone based system that’s suitable for regular consumer use.  A prototype model is shown in the photograph.  We’ve been testing the prototype devices with our nanotechnology-based reagent (which goes into the test tube), and doing validation and calibration work.  Everything is looking good and everyone has been pleased with the results.  It’s reliably and quickly detecting microbial contamination in our water samples, and there are some other water tests under development that will be able to use the same platform.

To get to the next stage, which is production of the first batch of devices for sale, the company has just launched a Kickstarter campaign.  Have a look at their Kickstarter website to see much more information about the technology and where they are headed.

Waterloo’s Ranking Neighbours

I (and many others) don’t put a lot of confidence in rankings as a useful tool for high school students in selecting universities, but people tend to look at them and debate nevertheless.  The problem is, there are so many rankings available with different criteria and methodologies.  How do you make any sense of it?

Recently, I was reading about a statistical analysis technique called nearest neighbour analysis, and it gave me the following idea.  Why not look at several ranking system results for Waterloo and see if there is any commonality in the universities that are ranked around the same level?  So, I looked at the most recent Engineering rankings from QS, Times Higher Education, US News, ARWU, and URAP, and focused on just universities in North America.  I looked at Waterloo’s position, and the next 10 ranked above and below.  The result is shown in the following table, where the number in parentheses is the global rank… Continue reading

University of Waterloo students make a big splash in the 2017 AquaHacking semi-finals | Water Institute

An interesting competition event showcasing environmental water quality innovations by student groups.  Sponsored by the Water Institute at Waterloo, one of the research centres I belong to.

The AquaHacking 2017 semi-final competition unfolded last week at CIGI. By the end of the evening, five teams were chosen to move on to the final competition at Waterloo on September 13. It was a difficult decision for the five judges, as all 17 teams that competed offered innovative ideas that tackled the challenges and opportunities facing Lake Erie.

Source: University of Waterloo students make a big splash in the 2017 AquaHacking semi-finals | Water Institute

Getting to Know Failure

A while ago I came across Prof. Haushofer of Princeton University and his CV of Failures.  It was interesting, and kind of funny if you look at the last entry.  It also reminded me that professors are usually experts in failure, and not because we fail some of the students in our courses (although that does happen).

One of our Engineering Counselors once mentioned in a meeting that many students (especially new students) regard professors with a certain amount of awe and believe that we can do almost anything successfully.  But sadly no, most of us could probably also write a similar long list of “failures”.  These lists would include things such as jobs and promotions we didn’t get, research grants competitions we didn’t win, equipment funding that was denied, awards we didn’t receive, journal manuscripts that were rejected, cool research ideas that didn’t work, research collaborations that fell apart, graduate students we’ve mentored who didn’t excel, teaching innovations that flopped, courses and lectures that didn’t go very well, etc, etc.

Professors are actually so well acquainted with “failure” that we normally don’t even think much about it…it’s just a routine part of the job and life in general.  It’s so routine, we sometimes forget that it’s probably a new experience for many first year university students, when they get a failing grade in an assignment or test, or they don’t get the co-op position they were hoping for.

One can read in various publications about entrepreneurs and business people and their long list of failures before finding something that actually works.  For example, there are a few stories in the University of Waterloo Magazine about some alumni and their experiences with failure.  I guess that the bottom line is that “failure” is a normal part of adult life in pretty much any field.  The trick is to just expect it, embrace it, learn from it, and move on to the next thing.



It’s been quite a while since last posting, as various higher priority things arose, such as managing the admissions process, teaching various courses, and directing several larger research projects.  Things are still quite busy, but there is time for a quick overview of what’s happened as we gear up for the next admission cycle for September 2018.

For the 2017 cycle just finished, in very rough numbers…

  • we had around 12,500 applicants for our 1,600 spaces in Engineering.  That was a couple of hundred more than last year.
  • we had a significant rise in applications from people in the U.S., possibly because of our increasing presence there by alumni, co-op students, and other friends of the university?
  • our estimates worked out well and the programs were filled to capacity.
  • as in previous years, Biomedical and Software Engineering were highly competitive, and the rest not too far behind.  I’ll work on a new “chances” post for the fall, but there probably aren’t going to be very big differences from the Chances 2017 version.
  • as always, picking a few applicants from among so many good ones continued to be challenging.  As an indication, over 3,000 applicants with 90+% averages did not receive an offer to any engineering program.  Unfortunately we just don’t have enough facilities, space, faculty and staff to take any more.

There are lots of other interesting (hopefully?) things I plan to post in the coming weeks and months about admissions, research, our students, and engineering in general.

Engineering student design teams win $50,000 each to launch startups

(Follow the link below for a couple of interesting stories about fourth year design projects in mechanical and nanotechnology engineering.)

With a deadline approaching to commit to their fourth-year Capstone Design project, friends Phil Cooper and Michael Phillips were torn between two ideas: one of them relatively straightforward and the other extremely ambitious. They were still undecided when they went to listen to Chamath Palihapitiya, the celebrated Silicon Valley venture capitalist and Waterloo Engineering alumnus, as he urged students to set aside their fear of failure during an appearance on campus in September. That was it, the inspiration they needed to go for it instead of playing it safe.

Source: Engineering student design teams win $50,000 each to launch startups