College Admissions Are Getting Even Less Predictable – The Atlantic

When so many students have outstanding grades and test scores, schools have to get creative about triaging applicants.

Source: College Admissions Are Getting Even Less Predictable – The Atlantic

This is an interesting article from the U.S., and somewhat speaks to our situation.  So many applicants with high marks, it’s hard to distinguish among them.  One comment in the article stood out, namely “half of American teenagers now graduate high school with an A average”.  If that’s the case everywhere, no wonder it’s hard to differentiate between applicants. Continue reading

Teaching Climate Change

Since the 1990’s I’ve been teaching an elective course on Air Pollution Control.  We mainly focus on design of industrial systems, but I do include a small module on climate change science for background as to why certain things need emission control.  Over the past decades, some of the reports and discussions in the media and politics have been confused or nonsensical, so I try to keep it straightforward and factual.  I like to give the science a historical overview and context, to show where this all comes from.  The following is a very brief version of that overview.

The French scientist Joseph Fourier (famous for his work in heat transfer and mathematics) is credited for identifying the so-called “greenhouse effect” in the 1820s.  He didn’t know exactly what caused it, but recognized that the Earth’s surface is warmer than it theoretically should be, if there was no atmosphere trapping heat.

Some of the mechanisms behind the heat-trapping effects of the atmosphere were eventually identified, notably by the Irish physicist John Tyndall in the 1850s through his work on absorption spectroscopy.  He experimentally measured the heat absorbing effects of water vapour, carbon dioxide and other atmospheric gases.  These measurements and those by others provided the fundamental basis for the advances in radiative heat transfer used throughout science and industry to this day.

In retrospect, a big step forward in understanding and quantifying the physics of climate change came with work published in 1896 by the Swedish physicist/chemist Svante Arrhenius.  The first page of this work is pictured below, and in this work he calculated how much the global temperature would rise if carbon dioxide concentrations rose.

First page of Arrhenius’ paper on the climate effects of changing carbon dioxide concentrations. “Carbonic acid” is an older or alternate name for carbon dioxide in the presence of water.

Arrhenius is well-known by anyone who has taken chemistry (Arrhenius equation in reaction kinetics), and he received a Nobel Prize for Chemistry.  His work on climate change physics didn’t seem to receive much widespread attention at the time, since there was no particular concern that carbon dioxide concentrations were rising.  However it’s regarded as the first significant attempt to analyze the physics of rising carbon dioxide concentrations and over the subsequent century many scientists have modified and improved upon his initial work.  Arrhenius had to go through some rather complicated and laborious hand calculations, but in recent decades computers have made that work much easier and more precise.

So from this brief historical overview in my class (including some other work not mentioned here), we can see that climate change science has a solid basis in physics, dating back over 100 years.  Denying the basic physics of climate change is like denying the Bernoulli principle while watching airplanes fly overhead, or stepping off a cliff and denying that gravity exists.

Next I usually show some data for carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere, usually from the Mauna Loa observatory operated by NOAA in the U.S.  An example is shown below that also includes my additions to illustrate the years when international  agreements have been signed to combat climate change at Rio, Kyoto, and Paris.  Unfortunately, the upward trend doesn’t seem to have been affected much, which is a bit depressing when considering our next generations.

Carbon dioxide measurement data since 1958.

In my class we then touch briefly on some of the current and future effects of climate change, such as sea level rise, extreme precipitation events and flooding, drought, and heat waves.  I ask students to try out one of the simpler carbon footprint calculators so they can see how their lifestyle contributes to carbon dioxide emissions.  They frequently comment on how surprising it is that air travel and meat consumption are significant factors in their total impact.  These estimates can help people understand the context and future challenges.

Finally, I conclude that as soon-to-graduate new engineers they will be dealing with climate change directly or indirectly throughout their careers.  Maybe helping with carbon emissions reductions, energy efficiency, electrification, alternative energy, process and materials redesigns.  Or if nothing much is accomplished in carbon dioxide emission reduction, dealing with the effects such as infrastructure repair and replacement, and water supply issues.  As a bit of personal advice, I usually recommend that they avoid purchasing property in coastal or low-lying areas, or anywhere within a 500 to 1,000 year flood plain.




The deadline is quickly approaching for accepting offers on the OUAC application site.  Our deadline for Engineering offers is Friday June 1 at midnight (Toronto/Eastern time).  As a word of advice, don’t leave it to the last few minutes.  If you have computer problems and miss the deadline there aren’t any extensions available, the system closes.

Preliminary data indicates that we will likely meet or exceed our targets for the programs but we won’t know for sure for a few more weeks while we check the data and ensure that all the offer conditions have been met.  However, if you’re accepting an offer with the intention of transferring into Computer Engineering, it is pretty clear now that there will be no spaces.  If Computer Engineering is your true goal, you’re better off accepting an offer at another university if you have one.  This likely even applies to students in Electrical Engineering looking to switch to Computer.  In the past this has been straightforward, but the numbers may make this switch difficult from now on due to upper year course space limits.

Overall, our general advice still applies:  don’t accept an engineering offer with the intention of immediately trying to change programs.  Generally, this is not going to happen because our lab and class facilities are full and going any further impacts on the quality we can offer the current students.


Admissions Decisions Finished

All offers and rejections for our Engineering programs have now been posted on our Quest system and the offers eventually show up on the OUAC system too.  Every year’s admissions seems to get a little more challenging and complicated and this year was no different with about 13,000 applications and the launch of our new Architectural Engineering program.  As usual, there are a few happy people and a lot that are not so happy.  For perspective, a few statistics might be helpful:

  1. Applications overall were up between 5 and 10%, but a few programs stood out.  Namely, Computer and Systems Design Engineering applications were up about 30% each, and Biomedical up about 15%.  Increased applications means higher competition and more rejections since the available spaces didn’t change.
  2. Overall, about 75% of our applicants did not receive an offer.  For some programs like Software and Biomedical Engineering, closer to 90% of applicants didn’t receive offers since there were so many applicants and a very limited number of spaces.
  3. As usual, we gave out some alternate choice offers in a number of programs, although there are limits to how many we will offer in any one program.  This year, a lot of Software applicants put Computer Engineering as an alternate, which makes some sense.  But with the 30% increase in Computer applications, there was quite a bottleneck and many were no doubt surprised to get no offer.

At this stage, all of our spaces are now allocated and we wait until the summer to see if the predicted number of people accept the offers.  We don’t have an appeal or reconsideration process, because the spaces are filled to the limits (and beyond).  We make more offers than there are spaces, with the assumption that a certain fraction will choose to go somewhere else.  Generally our predictions are accurate within 1 or 2%, and there are usually no spaces opening up during the summer.

For those with offers to engineering and are thinking about wanting to change programs, our suggestion is to forget about it.  Recent experience suggests that it is not likely to happen because of space limitations in most programs, even after first year.  The engineering programs have no obligation to take transfers, and lately many have refused to do so.  Therefore, if you’re not reasonably sure that you will be satisfied with the offer you have, you should seriously consider another offer.  Our open house event for admitted applicants on Saturday May 26 is a good last chance to visit and discuss your potential future program with faculty and students.

Gearing Up for Final Round

So many interesting things to blog about, and so little time (and energy).  I just finished grading exams and uploading marks for my Winter term course on Air Pollution Control, and am getting stuff ready for my Spring term course that starts tomorrow.

In the mean time, the admissions staff are busily working away at last minute things, and we are (patiently?) waiting for the Ontario high schools to finish uploading their second semester mid-term grades.  We are in a bit of a holding pattern until we get that data, which will hopefully be completed over the next week.

Once all the data is available, we’ll spend several days filling the remaining spaces in our programs, considering alternate choice programs, double-checking various things, and helping with scholarship selection decisions.  It’s hard to say exactly when we’ll finish, but we do go as fast as we can (including weekends and evenings) until completed.

Waterloo AI Institute

Recently Waterloo launched an Artificial Intelligence Institute to act as a focal point for research and other activities related to AI.  It’s a joint effort between Engineering and Mathematics, but includes researchers from other areas too.  A short introductory video is available that highlights a few interesting points.

The AI Institute’s website also has a list of some interesting feature projects, including cancer detection, forest fire control, and hockey analytics.  Although these are advanced research projects with Masters and PhD students, it is not unusual to find undergraduate students participating too, either as co-op work term students, or part-time as undergraduate research assistants (during academic terms).  There are almost 100 faculty members involved, so lots of variety of potential opportunities.

Artificial Intelligence

Artificial intelligence, or AI, seems to be the popular topic in media these days, and I have had a number of questions about it from prospective students and families over the past year.  The short answer is yes, we do have AI in our Engineering programs.  In fact, we have an “Option in Artificial Intelligence”  available for students in any engineering program.  This is essentially like a “Minor” in the topic, a package of courses related to the field (at Waterloo our terminology is a bit different, so we don’t call it a “minor”).  If you complete the package of courses, you’ll have the designation on your transcript and diploma when you graduate.

Although AI seems new and exciting, the roots and development are actually fairly old, having a basis in  ancient philosophy and mathematics.  Even the more modern versions and applications of AI go back over 50 years to the initial developments in  computational machines.  One misunderstanding is that AI is all about programming, but it is actually highly mathematical at its core.  Programming is just a tool for implementing the math and various algorithms.

Some people may be surprised to know that the mathematical tools and foundations for AI are not even limited to computer science or computer engineering.  My colleagues in Chemical Engineering have been using them for decades for various purposes, and here are a few quick examples with links for further information.

Optimization methods are often a part of chemical plant design, scheduling, cost minimization, and various other things like this example on planning electricity generation.  The control of complex chemical plant processes has been researched using artificial neural networks, like this simpler example of crude oil desaltingBayesian inference methods are employed for dealing with the significant uncertainties in chemical processes, even by me many years agoKalman filter techniques are used to help us handle the noisy data coming from chemical processes, including this example from biotechnology.  And there are lots of other examples, just in Chemical Engineering alone, not even looking at Civil, Mechanical and others (where I know they also use these advanced mathematical techniques).

Just another example of how broad and diverse the engineering fields are, and how concepts and tools are spread and shared across all these disciplines.

A Few More Offers

Recently we were able to process a batch of offers for applicants from outside the Ontario high school system (Form 105 applicants).  Similar to our earlier Form 101 round of offers, this is a limited number based on what documents we have reviewed so far.  There are still something like 60 to 70% of the spaces in each program unfilled at this point, and everyone continues to be considered in our upcoming round.

From now until about the end of April we continue to review documents, AIFs, and interviews in preparation for our main round of offers in May.  The exact timing of those offers is impossible to predict.  We have to wait to get the electronic grade data from Ontario high schools before we can start, so it’s somewhat dependent on them.  I guess we’ll see how it goes.  Thankfully our offers can now be electronically posted on our Quest system, so we’re not scrambling to mail them to applicants in a narrow window of time.

A Few Offers So Far

As usual around this time of year, we have processed a few offers for applicants who are currently in an Ontario high school.  Generally this will fill less than 25% of the available spaces in each program, leaving the large majority of spaces for our final round of decisions in May when we have more complete data for a fair comparison.  People who don’t get an offer at this stage are automatically carried forward for consideration then.

The selection process is a bit random at this stage, which is why I don’t like to commit very many spaces.  Typically, people with offers at this point have consistently high grade 11 and 12 math, English & science marks, and at least 3  Grade 12 required courses completed.  Also they probably ranked in the top end of all the program applicants, taking into account an AIF score (and optional interview score, if one was submitted).  It takes us until mid-April to complete all the AIF and interview scoring, so at this stage it’s somewhat random whether those play a significant role or not for any one individual.

Eventually (by the end of April), we get all the Grade 12 marks and other scores, and then it’s much fairer  to compare everyone on the same basis.  Any high scoring applicants who missed out on the early round will get selected at that point.

For out-of-province applicants (OUAC Form 105), we’ll do a bit of a preliminary offer round in a few weeks when we have more data compiled from transcripts.  It’s difficult to say exactly when (it depends on many things), but hopefully by early April to help out those with May 1 offer acceptance deadlines at U.S. universities.

Problem Lab