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.

Capstone Design Projects

March is the season for “Capstone Design Project” presentations at Waterloo Engineering.  These are events where groups of graduating students present and explain the design projects they have been working on for the past 8 to 12 months.  Working on a significant, open-ended design project is a feature in all engineering programs in Waterloo and across Canada, to my knowledge.  These “Design Symposia” are open to the public.

Where do the topics for these design projects come from?  There are 3 typical sources:  1) some professors provide an idea, likely related to their ongoing research projects; 2) companies approach us with ideas that they would like someone to work on; 3) the student groups come up with their own ideas.

For companies, this is an opportunity to have some ideas explored in more detail and for free (other than some time spent).  Many companies have some new ideas or side-projects that would be nice to do, but they don’t have the time or resources to follow-up on them right away.  Having a student group work on it can help them scope-out the idea and see if it is worthwhile to pursue more aggressively in the future.  For the students, they get more experience working on a real-world problem, possibly in an industry sector they want to learn more about.  This can be a nice addition to the experience they already gained during their co-op work terms.

Student groups that come up with their own idea are often the source of new innovations and start-up companies that they build after graduation.  At Waterloo, any novel idea that a student creates is owned by them.  The university supports innovation and entrepreneurship, but doesn’t attempt to take it over in any way.

For high school students who are thinking about pursuing engineering, these projects are a good way to get a feeling for what you can do in the different disciplines.  So check out these links for project titles or descriptions:

Management Engineering
Nanotechnology Engineering
Software Engineering
Civil, Environmental, Geological Engineering
Electrical & Computer Engineering
Mechatronics Engineering
Mechanical Engineering
Chemical Engineering
Systems Design Engineering

A couple of programs are missing their project lists, but will probably be updated in the coming days.  See this link.

Things People Say About Co-op

Engineering Five building at the University of...

Engineering Five building at the University of Waterloo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One of Waterloo Engineering’s major features for the past 50+ years has been the co-operative education system (“co-op”), where students alternate every 4 months (more or less) between academic classes on-campus and relevant work experience somewhere out there in the “real world”.  In our system, Engineering students get 6 work opportunities, therefore 6 x 4 months = 24 months of work experience before graduation.  There are various websites available giving more information and other details, including this one or this one.  Over the years I’ve heard a number of comments and questions about co-op, and thought it might be useful to summarize some of the common and interesting ones here.

Continue reading

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

Co-op Education: Try before you buy

In the Globe & Mail newspaper, there is a short opinion article about the value of co-operative education (i.e. a structured mixing of academics and work experience).  It’s written by one of our Systems Design Engineering graduates, Andrew D’Souza, who is now COO of the educational software company Top Hat (yet another Waterloo engineering student start-up).

Andrew’s points are similar to what Waterloo’s literature tries to get across, but he is much more blunt about it.  For example, in the article he says:

If university degrees came with a 90-day refund policy, I think we’d see a lot of unemployed students waiting in the returns line. Co-op programs are as close to a “try before you buy” deal as we’ll see in higher education anytime soon.

He also explains how he started in university with some pre-conceived notions about a career path, and how these quickly changed once he saw what it was actually like during a co-op work term.  Hence the “try before you buy” idea, and the remaining work terms are an opportunity to switch gears to alternative paths, as he explains.  When I talk to our students, this is a fairly common point that comes up in one way or another.

It’s an interesting article from someone with first-hand experience and a few years after graduation to reflect back on how it helped shape his path.

Engineering Failure Rates

We typically get a few questions each year about our failure rate.  I’m never quite sure why people ask, or what they are expecting.  Do they want to hear that the failure rate is high, so they are convinced it’s a tough (and therefore good) program?  Or maybe they don’t want the failure rate to be high, because they are concerned that they won’t be successful?  I’m not sure what the motivation for the question is, but anyways let’s examine failure rates.  Continue reading

Learning to Code – II

Here’s an interesting article from TalentEgg on a Toronto-based non-profit group that runs workshops “for women (and men) who want to learn computer programming and other technical skills in a social and collaborative way”.

Women Cracking The Code: Programming As A New Literacy | TalentEgg Career Incubator.

The group is called Ladies Learning Code, and it looks like quite a fun and interesting way to teach/learn. I can see this expanding to the Waterloo area, if it hasn’t already.

Learning to Code

My colleague Dana pointed out this nice little video promoting the teaching and learning of coding (i.e. programming) What Most Schools Don’t Teach . While it seems to be aimed at elementary or secondary school, I can appreciate the sentiment.

It’s not that everyone should be an expert in C++ or whatever. The idea I like is that learning coding or programming develops problem solving and logic skills. the ability to think in terms of algorithms, with inputs, outputs, loops, counters, etc. Even if you never need to code again, that is a useful learning process. Continue reading

Top Ten Ways to Fail Your Engineering Program

Classes will be starting shortly, and this is the time when new students typically get some advice for their future studies.  If you search around the web, you’ll find lots of blogs, books, forums, and pages with suggestions for how to succeed in university and engineering programs.  Rather than add one more, I think I’ll provide the following list for students who want to fail out and toss away the $10,000 (or more) it cost in tuition and living expenses to attend for a term.  These suggestions are based on many years of observation as an academic advisor dealing with failed-out students, so they’re guaranteed to work!  They are somewhat specific to Waterloo Engineering, but I bet that many will  work for other programs too. Continue reading

Hard to Read Lectures?

For years I’ve laboured to make my lecture materials as clear as possible and easy to read.  I tend to use prepared overheads and/or Powerpoints, and not too much blackboard work since my handwriting is a bit messy (and writing a lot on a blackboard or whiteboard gets to be a bit hard on arthritic hands).  However, now I find out I should be making my lecture materials harder to read!  Why is that? Continue reading