What Happens to Grades

It’s the start of a new academic year and lots of new students are beginning their transition from secondary school to university.  That transition can be challenging for a variety of reasons, including being away from home, new community, different teaching styles, etc.  For some students, a big source of stress comes about half-way into the term when they start to see their grades and realize that they are quite different from what they were used to in high school.  I think that our instructors are generally quite up-front about what to expect, i.e. that grades will typically drop about 15 to 20 percentage points from high school, but I suspect that a lot of students assume that will happen to someone else and not them.  So let’s look at some data from a past year that compares high school grades (admission averages) with averages at the end of first year engineering, for the same group of students.   Continue reading

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.

Choosing Your Engineering Program 2

With application deadlines approaching, some people will be struggling with the decision of which engineering program to apply to.  I had a post on this topic last year, and here are some additional thoughts.  As a reminder, Waterloo engineering has direct entry to a specific engineering discipline, so you have to pick one of our 13 programs for your application choice.  For those who don’t know where to start, last year I recommended our Quiz for some initial choices, and I still recommend it.  However, it doesn’t currently include our new Biomedical Engineering program, so you have to keep that in mind.

With our quiz results or other ideas in mind, you should do some serious research to see which program catches your interest the best.  There are plenty of online things to look at, and Google or Bing will help you find it.  One that I recently remembered is the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics site.  It has some interesting information on the nature of various engineering jobs.  Be careful on putting too much faith in their projections and forecasts however.

Some other ideas:

  • Students at Waterloo will be more engaged with their program and classmates if they are relatively sure and committed to their program.  If after doing some serious research and thought about different programs you still can’t decide at all, then certainly consider a university with a general engineering entrance program.  Then you can postpone deciding for a little while.  There are lots around Ontario, including Queen’s, McMaster, and Western, for example.  Other universities offer direct entry as well as an undecided/undeclared option, including Ryerson, Guelph, Windsor and York, for example.  Toronto has the “TrackOne” program which is a general first year.  Toronto’s Engineering Science is sort of a general first year too, since it looks like about 33% of the students move into other disciplines in 2nd year.
  • In spite of what I say in the above point, you don’t have to be 100% sure about your choice.  It’s normal to be somewhat uncertain.  But you should have some level of comfort and knowledge about the program you’ve picked, and why you are picking it.
  • There are potentially bad reasons to pick a program, including:  1) it’s the most competitive for admission; 2) family/friends say it’s the “best”; 3) some website says it’s the best paid, or has the best career prospects.  These are bad reasons, especially if your interests and aptitude don’t align with the choice.  Imagine sitting in classes where everyone else is keen on the material and projects,  and you’re not.  It’s probably not going to go well.  Every year we get a few of these cases.  Sometimes we can help them switch programs, but sometimes it goes so badly that they have to leave the university.  We would prefer to avoid this problem as much as possible.
  • Always remember that career paths can be very flexible, and choosing a specific discipline does not lock you into a specific career for the rest of your life.  Many engineering graduates eventually go into management careers, where the discipline-specific technical knowledge is less important anyways.
  • There is a lot of overlap between various disciplines, so it is not critical that you pick the “right” one.  If you pick one that you feel some affinity for, you’ll probably be fine no matter how your interests may shift over the coming years.  You should expect (and want) to continue learning new things throughout your career.
  • There is no such thing as the “best” program.

 

Asking For Help

During first year engineering, a number of students will come to realize that they are struggling in one or more courses.  This will be shocking and confusing to them, because they have probably never experienced it before.  They have probably never had to ask for help before either.  It is never our intention to “weed out” a bunch of students (that would be a waste of our time and resources), so we try to provide a lot of avenues for student support, especially in that crucial first year.  Students just need to take the initiative and seek out the help that is available (since we often can’t tell who is struggling until it’s too late).  Here is a brief overview of various ways to access help. Continue reading

Comparing Software to Computer Engineering

Another installment from Prof. Patrick Lam, the Associate Director of Software Engineering.  A previous one compared Software Engineering to Computer Science. With these various posts, you should have a good overview of the differences and many similarities between the three programs. Note:  for Waterloo you can only apply to one of Software or Computer Engineering.  If you’re interested in Computer Science too, you need to submit a separate application for that program.

Comparing the BSE in Software Engineering to the BASc in Computer Engineering

Summary: Waterloo’s Software Engineering (SE) and Computer Engineering (CE) programmes are both CEAB-accredited Engineering programmes. After the first year (which is quite similar), Software Engineering takes a deeper and more Computer Science-centric view of the material and focuses less on hardware, while Computer Engineering provides a broader overview of material and includes more hardware content. You must have experience with writing programs to be admitted to (and to succeed in) Software Engineering.

Employment outcomes from SE, CE, and Computer Science (CS) are broadly similar. What you get out of a university education depends less on your specific courses and more on what you put into your courses, your interaction with peers, and your work experience. However, the programmes do differ. To help you choose which programme is the best fit for you, here are some of my personal observations about culture and courses. Continue reading

An Engineer’s Life (with 2 weeks experience!)

Some good advice and observations from a new Electrical Engineering student. Nice writing too!

JawadAtWaterloo

Hello people! How y’all doing?

First of all, I got a new computer for school (Yayyy!). This is my first blog post in this new computer, so I thought I should talk a little about the necessity of getting a new computer for Engineering. I would not say that you really need a new computer for Engineering, but sometimes you do need to run software like AutoCad, programming compilers and so on. If you feel that your computer is very slow with multitasking, or that it has poor battery life and portability, I would probably start saving up for a new computer. Not something fancy for sure, but something that is able to manage everyday work and still handle some rigorous software needs. (My new computer, by the way, is a i5 core with 8 GB RAM and 1 TB HDD).

How’s Engineering, you ask? If I were to answer…

View original post 772 more words

Computer vs Software vs CS

What is the difference between Computer Engineering, Software Engineering, and Computer Science?  This is a perennial question and generates a lot of interest from potential applicants.  I had a post on this topic (and there is some very good discussion in the comments section that follows).

Some of our incoming first year engineering students have recently produced a nice blog post on the differences.  Since they recently went through the process of researching, comparing and contrasting the programs, it provides a unique perspective from an  applicant’s point of view.  Have a look at their post and blog here.

Note that at Waterloo, if you have interest in Software Engineering and Computer Science, you can apply to both and potentially have two different offers .

Students’ use of laptops in class found to lower grades – The Globe and Mail

Below is an article summarizing a study that measured the potential negative effects of bringing a laptop to lectures, i.e. you end up with lower grades.  The study confirms what many professors informally observe, and what has been measured in other studies, such as a couple described in this document from Stanford’s website.

For note-taking in engineering classes, laptops are almost useless.  Pen and paper may be old-fashioned, but it’s still the quickest and easiest medium for quick sketches, free body diagrams, derivations of equations full of Greek symbols, etc.  We recommend (and some professors insist) that you leave the laptops at home or in your bag.

I see very few, if any, laptops in the lectures for the fourth-year (senior) courses I teach.  Since fourth-year students are the ones who successfully got through the first three years, that’s probably a good hint for first year students. Continue reading

A Guide to University Nomenclature

For new university students the academic world is probably rather confusing, partly because it is large, complex, and uses terminology that secondary school students have not likely encountered.  Here’s my quick reference guide to some of that jargon.  It’s somewhat specific to Waterloo, but many North American universities use something similar.  (In the interest of brevity, I’ll gloss over some details and hope that my colleagues don’t mind.) Continue reading