2018 Nobel Prize in Physics

Today is a great day in the history of the University of WaterlooDonna Strickland, a professor in the Physics Department will receive her Nobel Prize in Physics for her work in developing chirped pulse amplification with her Ph.D. supervisor, Gérard Mourou.  Our university is hosting a viewing party in our Board and Senate Chambers in Needles Hall today at 10:30 am.  For those who cannot attend the viewing party, the ceremony is being streamed on YouTube in approximately 15 minutes.  You can view the livestream here.

To the best of my knowledge, Donna is the first University of Waterloo professor to receive a Nobel Prize.  It is an incredible achievement and one that will have a lasting positive impact upon our institution for many years to come.  In recognition of Donna’s achievement, our university has posted three large signs on the side of our Physics Building on campus as shown in the image below:

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Our engineering applicants might be surprised to learn that Donna has frequently taught our first-year engineering students the fundamentals of physics.  I have had the opportunity to work alongside Donna at first year divisional meetings and I can honestly say that she is an excellent teacher that deeply cares for her students.  Her students clearly respect her and value her teachings.  Our Faculty of Engineering is very lucky to have Donna as one of the many excellent Physics professors teaching our first year students.

I encourage everyone to check out the 2018 Nobel Prize Award Ceremony on YouTube and wish Donna all the best using the hashtag #nobelprize.

Exam Season Has Begun

Classes have now ended for the Fall term at the University of Waterloo.  Students are currently preparing for their final exams.  For some students, this means finally getting a day of rest to prepare for long hours of studying and exam writing.  For other students, the studying process has already begun.  For our first year students, this is a scary time of the year.  Most of our first year students have never written a final exam in university.  The study areas on campus are busy with students reviewing lecture materials and old exams in hopes of learning all the things that they didn’t have time to learn throughout the term.

The co-op program that is a required part of Waterloo Engineering has pros and cons.  The program is known for training highly qualified engineers.  Students get real-world experience working on engineering problems that matter.  The lessons taught by real-world experience are often superior to those taught in a classroom setting.  Employers have access to state-of-the-art tools and equipment that universities sometimes lack.  For example, our co-op students working at Apple are working on products that will come to market in the next two years using internal tools that are likely better than those available on any university campus.  No university, regardless of budget, can compete on an equal playing field with private sector research and development.

However, one of the downsides of the co-op program is the substantial investment of time that students must make during their academic terms to secure great co-op placements.  Writing résumés and cover letters is time-consuming.  While we have a great system in place to help students find a job, it sometimes requires a fair amount of work on the part of a student during an academic term.  This coupled with employment trends where companies require applicants to complete assignments and tests prior to an interview can really make studying during the term a difficult proposition.  At this time of the year, I often recommend to students still looking for a co-op placement that they put the job search on a temporary hold.

For our students, it is now time to focus on studying for exams.

Like students, academic terms are busy for most faculty members.  My last few days have been spent catching up on things that had to be postponed until classes ended.  Writing a final exam for my course was at the top of my to-do list.  I can happily say that my exam has been submitted for printing.

Students and parents might be surprised to learn how long it takes faculty members to write a good exam.  I usually budget about 30 hours for final exam writing.  Sometimes, it takes more than 30 hours to typeset an exam.  It depends upon the complexity of the exam and the number of figures and tables required.  It is a bit like writing a chapter of a textbook or writing a journal paper.  The task requires great attention to detail and a fair amount of hard work.  I try to anticipate how students will interpret my questions and I try to figure out how the questions can be graded fairly and efficiently.  My final exams tend to be somewhere between 20 pages and 24 pages long.  For a brief glimpse into the end product, you can see an image of the front page of my final exam for my course this term.

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There are no spoilers in this image as I provide the front page to all of my students through our online learning system.  The front page provides students with an idea of what they can expect during their final exam.  While it doesn’t really say much, students like knowing the mark breakdown.  During the last class of the term, I also provide titles for each exam question.  As an example, Question 1 on this final exam is a question on Serial Interfacing.

Contrary to what happens in the movies, my final exams do not reuse questions verbatim from previous years.  While individual questions may be similar to old questions in structure, I always change the question wording and the numeric values to provide a new take on old questions.  A slight change in wording can substantially change the meaning of some questions.  I also strive to introduce several new questions on every exam that I write.  This can be a challenge when you have taught a variation of the same course for 15+ years.  This being said, I love the course that I teach and I am happy to face this challenge at the end of an academic term.

Students and parents might also be surprised to learn that most faculty members, including myself, do not want to fail students.  I prefer students passing my final exams.  Passing is a sign that students have learned something that I feel is important.  When students fail my exams, I always wonder if there is something I could have done better to help motivate the student to learn the material.  There might have been a better way to explain a particular concept to my students.  A few more examples might have helped.  Given more class time, things could always have been better.

At the end of the academic term, we do have course evaluations that are conducted to provide feedback to instructors.  This information is incredibly valuable to instructors in some cases.  Using feedback provided by students, I have found ways to improve my course notes that I might not otherwise have figured out.  While there are still improvements to be made, my course notes are much better than the ones I used 15 years ago.  The only students (sadly) who get to see the improvements are those who repeat my course.  This term, I hope none of my students get to see the next version of my course notes.

Good luck to all of our engineering students on their final exams!

 

Enrolment Trends

Recently, I was asked by a prospective applicant about the subject of expansion.  There are many dimensions to the question of expansion but I would like to focus this blog post on the subject of enrolment trends.

Over the past 15 years, Waterloo Engineering has steadily grown the size of its undergraduate program offerings.  We have added new programs such as Mechatronics Engineering, Nanotechnology Engineering, Biomedical Engineering, and Architectural Engineering.  We have also slightly increased the number of students entering our programs in first year in some of our other engineering programs.  Overall, this has resulted in a steady increase to our first year Waterloo Engineering enrolment as shown in the graph provided below:

First Year Enrolment Graph

We understand that we are a very popular destination for students wishing to study engineering.  Over the past decade, we have seen an increase in the number of applicants to our engineering programs and we have also seen a (slight) increase in the quality of our applicants.  To meet perceived demand, we have increased our supply of available spaces where practical to do so.

Our co-op program is the primary reason for our growth.  Many engineering applicants realize the value of practical engineering experience.  While other universities offer co-op placements and internships, Waterloo Engineering is known for having a highly successful co-op program with strong ties to companies worldwide.

However, the enrolment trends in the Province of Ontario have been moving in the opposite direction in recent years.  The number of students in Grade 12 has been decreasing since 2009-10.  According to the Ministry of Education – Education Facts webpage (http://www.edu.gov.on.ca/eng/educationfacts.html), Grade 12 enrolment has dropped by 18.2% since 2009.  The Grade 12 enrolment numbers are shown in the graph provided below:

Grade 12 Enrolment Graph

Looking at the enrolment numbers for earlier grades, our current projections suggest that the downward trend is likely to continue for at least another decade unless high school age students move in large numbers to the Province of Ontario.  The downward trend in Grade 12 enrolment cannot be ignored easily.  It is a significant consideration when proposing plans for expansion.

Some people might argue that a particular university should educate all engineers in the Province of Ontario.  If every student wants to study at Waterloo, why not?  I personally believe there is value to having choice.  Some students want co-op while others do not.  Some students want to study in a big city while others prefer a small town.  Some students want small class sizes while others want larger class sizes to establish a strong network of classmates.  Some students want to study close to their home while others wish to study abroad.  Perhaps this is why selecting a university is such a difficult decision.  There are so many choices to consider.

If 61 years ago people did not believe it was important to have choice, the University of Waterloo might not have existed at all.  The University of Waterloo was founded not only to meet a need for more highly trained individuals but also to offer a unique choice to applicants.  Co-op education was an essential part of our education from the first day that we opened.  This innovation has had a lasting impact upon our university and universities around the world.

Early Admission Offers

This Fall, we have received quite a few inquiries regarding early admission.  We attempted to answer many of these questions at the Fall Break Open House (shown below) but for those who missed the event, I will try to answer a few of the most common questions on early admission that I have received.

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Does Waterloo Engineering do an early round of admission offers?

Yes.  Our plan is to select a small number of applicants to fill a small percentage of the available spaces in each program prior to our main round of admission in May.  The early round of admission is expected to happen sometime in the middle of March.  We wait for first semester grades to arrive prior to making any early admission offer decisions.  We do not expect to receive first semester grades until the first week in March.  This is why we cannot make informed decisions earlier in the admission process.

Why does Waterloo Engineering only accept a small number of applicants in the first round of admission offers?

We have a duty to applicants, their families, members of the university community, and the government to ensure to the best of our abilities that we only accept applicants who are likely to be highly successful in our programs.  Grades in high school courses are an important part of our assessment process.  At the end of the first semester, some students have completed most, if not all, of the required courses for admission to our program.  These students are considered for early admission.  Students taking several required courses for admission in their 2nd semester will not typically be considered for early admission, regardless of how exceptional their grades may have been in previous years.

Does completing my application early improve my chances of being given early admission to my program of choice?

Certainly, you will not receive an offer if your application is incomplete.  However, the exact date that you complete your application is not a factor in our decisions.  As long as your application is complete prior to our early round assessments, you will automatically be considered for early admission.  For engineering, the deadline for completing applications is February 1, 2019.

Is there any advantage to being selected early?

There is no advantage to being selected early.  While it might be comforting to know that you have an offer, being selected early does not factor into scholarship decisions, residence decisions, or program decisions.  We do not allow students with early offers to ask to be considered for another program while holding on to their early admission offer.  For example, a student accepted into Computer Engineering early could not ask to be considered for Software Engineering without giving up the offer for Computer Engineering.  You may not use an early admission offer as a “safety net”.

Is there any disadvantage to being selected early?

There is no disadvantage to being selected early.  Some students worry that they might miss out on a scholarship awarded in the main round of admission.  This is not the case.  We consider all accepted students when awarding entrance scholarships.  Receiving an early offer of admission does not increase or decrease your chances of being awarded an entrance scholarship.

How can I ensure that I will get an early admission offer?

If you are applying this year, there is no way to guarantee receiving an early offer of admission.  Do well in your courses, ensure your application is well written, and make sure you application is complete by the application deadline.  If you are in Grade 11 or earlier, you might be able to take a few of the required courses early.  Doing so might allow you to complete the rest of your required courses in the first semester of your final year of high school.

If I already have an offer from another university with an early acceptance deadline, what can I do?

If you find yourself in a situation where you would prefer to attend Waterloo Engineering but another university (or college) is asking for a firm commitment prior to May, let our Engineering Admissions Office know.  You can do so by e-mailing enginfo@uwaterloo.ca.  While we cannot guarantee that we will consider your application early, it may be possible in certain cases.  If you ask for early consideration of your application, you will be required to provide proof of your acceptance to another university (or college).

Some final thoughts…

Remember, there is no advantage to being selected early.  An applicant receiving an early offer is not necessarily more qualified than an applicant receiving an offer in the main admission round.  As an applicant, your goal should be to gain acceptance into your first choice program.  Hopefully, you will receive a letter of acceptance during one of our two rounds of admission.

Fall Break Open House

The Fall Break Open House has begun at the University of Waterloo. This year, a record number of prospective students registered to attend. We have over 6,000 prospective students expected to visit our brand new building and attend presentations on our engineering programs. Here is a view of our atrium in Engineering 7 where students are gathering to go on tours with current students.

If you would like to check out our new building today, feel free to drop by our campus for a visit. We would be happy to give you a tour!

Recruiting Trip

I’ve been very busy since my last blog post on the Ontario University Fair.  I spent 9 days travelling through California and New York to attend two large university fairs specifically organized for students interested in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) related fields.  Here is a brief summary of my trip and its highlights.

The first fair was held in Santa Clara, California on October 7th.  This fair was held in the Santa Clara Convention Center.  My colleague and I were able to answer questions about Waterloo Engineering and our many programs.  We were pleasantly surprised to meet with some alumni of our programs who now have children interested in applying to the University of Waterloo.  There were also some students who have learned quite a bit about our university and its programs through friends who have attended the university.  However, it was also apparent that we still need to make greater efforts to inform high school students and guidance counselors in California about our university and its unique co-op programs.  Some other prominent Canadian universities were in attendance at the fair including McGill University and the University of Toronto.

We had a few hours free on October 8th so we arranged to visit the Intel Museum with a friend who studied Computer Engineering with me.   Mattias now works in Silicon Valley at a company named Synopsys which is well known in Computer Engineering circles.  They make EDA (Electronic Design Automation) Tools for the purpose of building computer chips.  The Intel Museum is worth a visit for anyone wishing to learn more about the history of the computer chip.  It is a small museum but the exhibits were interesting and interactive.

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After touring the museum, we were off to another university fair.  This one was held at Henry Gunn High School in Palo Alto, California.  As the night progressed, traffic at the Waterloo Engineering booth increased steadily.  We met some more alumni as well as a friend of a current Waterloo Engineering student.  Most student questions focused on our co-op program and student life.  There were a few questions about Canadian weather as well.  Looking at a map, it appears that 5 states (Minnesota, North Dakota, Montana, Washington, and Alaska) are entirely further north than Waterloo.  Prospective students were also quite happy to hear that many of our buildings are connected by tunnels and indoor pathways.

The next morning, we visited Lowell High School in San Francisco to meet with their guidance counselor and students.  Then, we were off to visit the new home of RaiseMe, a California-based startup that tracks student achievements and arranges micro scholarships for students to study after graduation from high school.  The University of Waterloo was the first Canadian university to partner with RaiseMe so we had a special invitation to tour the new office.  My colleague and I met the CEO briefly, toured the new office, and then met to discuss new opportunities for attracting exceptional students to our university.

On Wednesday, October  10th, we visited Bellarmine College Preparatory School in San Jose, California for another university fair.  This was a small university fair specifically for students attending the school.  We have a long history of students applying from Bellarmine and succeeding in our engineering programs so it was important to attend.  That night, my colleague and I hosted a dinner for alumni in the Silicon Valley area.  We had representatives from Facebook, Apple, and Synopsys in attendance.  We learned quite a bit about life in Silicon Valley and the many opportunities for co-op students.

The next day, we were off to New York City.  Most of the day was spent travelling.  Rush hour traffic meant a long drive to the San Francisco airport followed by a 5 hour flight and a long drive from the airport to Manhattan.

On Friday, October 12th, we visited NEST+m, a school dedicated to new explorations into science, technology, and math.  We had specifically chosen this school given its focus on students interested in STEM.  We wanted to provide the guidance counselor with some information on our university so that students might consider us in the future.  We then visited Stuyvesant High School to meet with interested students.

On Saturday, October 13th, our alumni in New York were organizing an event around the Terry Fox Run to raise funds for cancer research.  We attended a luncheon and met with some of our alumni working in New York City.  I met a former student I had taught back in 2005.  I also met a civil engineering graduate working on the tallest residential building in Manhattan.  I also met quite a few graduates of actuarial science who are working in New York.  I had some free time late that afternoon so I walked through Central Park and visited the New York Historical Society.  The museum had quite a few interesting exhibits.  A special exhibit on “Black Citizenship in the Age of Jim Crow” was particularly informative.  The museum also had a special exhibit entitled, “Harry Potter: A History of Magic” that was entertaining.

On Sunday, October 14th, my travels ended with a large STEM fair held at the Jacob K. Javits Center.  This was a large fair attracting students from New York State as well as students from nearby states.  New York is well connected by train to the eastern seaboard so it is very easy for students to attend the event.  Our booth was surprisingly active.  Only a few students made the mistake of thinking we were from Waterloo, New York.  Many students had heard of our university.  Quite a few students were interested in pursuing engineering programs so it was a very productive trip for us.

While I very much enjoyed visiting California and New York, I was quite happy to return home to the University of Waterloo.  I made it back just in time for my 8:30 am lecture on Monday, October 15th.

Reflections on the University Fair

This year’s Ontario University Fair attracted a smaller audience than previous years.  Over the three days, 118,357 visitors attended the fair.  The University of Waterloo scanned 17,333 OUF passports at our booth and 5,695 visitors attended a presentation on the University of Waterloo.  Over 550+ students, staff, and faculty from the University of Waterloo attended to answer the questions of prospective applicants and their family members.  It was another successful year for Waterloo Engineering.

Many questions were asked about Waterloo Engineering and the admissions process.  Here are some of the most frequently asked questions for those who might not have been able to attend the fair:

Does Waterloo have a general engineering program?

Waterloo Engineering does not offer a general engineering program or even a common first year program.  Students must select a specific discipline of engineering when applying to our university.  We strongly encourage prospective applicants to speak with current students to learn more about each discipline.  Applicants should also investigate the course requirements for each discipline to get a feel for the course material taught.

There is a very good reason why we require applicants to select a specific discipline.  Our unique co-op program requires us to provide specialized instruction to our students starting on the first day of classes.  We need to prepare students for their first co-op work term which can happen as early as 4 months into a program.  We want to make sure our students are successful in both their studies and their co-op employments.

Is the co-op program mandatory?

Yes.  Co-op experience is a requirement for graduation from any Waterloo Engineering program.  Students are required to successfully complete at least 5 co-op work placements.  We have a process in place that assists students with finding a suitable co-op work placements.  Employers advertise openings on our online system, students apply through the online system, employers interview students on-campus, and a ranking process is completed by both employers and students to match students with co-op work placements.  We have an extensive list of co-op employment opportunities.  Students may also elect to search for a co-op work placement independently.

What are the most difficult engineering programs to get into?

The answer varies from year-to-year.  Software Engineering and Biomedical Engineering were the two most difficult engineering programs to get into in 2018.  Other highly competitive programs include Computer Engineering, Electrical Engineering, Mechanical Engineering, Mechatronics Engineering, and Systems Design Engineering.  In 2018, 90% of all students admitted to Waterloo Engineering programs in first year had an average of 90% or greater in high school.

How are averages for admission calculated?

For students applying to Waterloo Engineering from Ontario high schools, we use Grade 12 grades in the 5 required subjects (English, Physics, Chemistry, Advanced Functions, and Calculus & Vectors) plus the student’s highest grade in a 6th course at the 4U or 4M level.

Students retaking any required course will have 5% deducted from their admission average.  Alternatively, if the original course grade was greater than 70%, we simply use the original course grade for average calculation which benefits the applicant slightly.  Our experience shows that students who retake courses to improve their average for the purpose of admission do not succeed in our engineering programs.  Students only have a realistic chance of being successful if a suitable (e.g., medical emergency, family emergency, etc.) reason exists for retaking a course.

Students taking courses outside of normal day school may also be subject to deductions from their admission average.  Students who take courses outside of normal day school should clearly indicate why they did so on their Admission Information Form.  If a suitable reason is provided, deductions may be reduced or eliminated altogether.

Do Grade 11 courses factor into admission decisions?

We do not typically look at grades from Grade 11 or earlier.  Grade 11 grades are only used to predict a missing Grade 12 grade for the purpose of early admission.  We will do this if a student is missing 1 or 2 required courses at the time of early admission consideration.

The decision to make an early offer of admission is a challenging one.  Sometimes, exceptional students are not given early offers of admission due to the fact that too many required Grade 12 courses remain to be completed at the time of consideration.  A slightly weaker student that has completed all of the required courses may receive an early offer of admission.  Students applying to U.S. universities also tend to be given early consideration due to the fact that U.S. universities have earlier acceptance deadlines.  In general, offers of early admission are extremely rare.

How are IB courses considered?

IB course grades are converted into equivalent course grades prior to assessment by the admissions team.  A conversion chart can be found here.  Applicants are encouraged to indicate that they have taken IB courses when completing their Admission Information Form.  While many high schools clearly identify IB courses, some do not.  Students who have completed the IB program tend to be slightly more prepared for first year engineering courses.

If my high school has a high adjustment factor, will I still be considered for admission?

Absolutely.  We carefully consider every application we receive.  We review Admission Information Forms to find exceptional students.  We believe that all high schools are capable of producing exceptional students.

We use adjustment factors to help rank students for admission consideration.  The adjustment factors change from one year to the next.  If a school has an adjustment factor, it is a clear indicator that we have accepted students from the school over the past 6 years.  You should not assume that your school will have the same adjustment factor this year.  Adjustment factors are just one tool that we use to assess students.

How many students are accepted into each program?

This is a very difficult question to answer.  We accept many more students than we admit to our programs.  There are many excellent universities in Canada that offer engineering programs.  While Waterloo Engineering is clearly among the best for an undergraduate education in engineering, we are not the only good choice.  Our top competitors include engineering programs at the University of Toronto and the University of British Columbia.

It is slightly more useful to know how many students we admit to each program.  Each year, we set targets for newly admitted students to our engineering programs.  In Fall 2018, our targets were the following:

2018 Program Targets

We will not know our targets for Fall 2019 until December.  We revise our targets every year but they rarely change significantly.  These targets do not include students repeating academic terms.

Class sizes may be smaller or larger than those listed above.  In some cases, students are split into multiple sections.  In other cases, students are grouped together for common courses.  In first year, our classes rarely exceed 140 students per class.

How are extra-curricular activities assessed?

When assessing extra-curricular activities, we consider the time commitment and the skills required.  Since our engineering programs require co-op work placements, we look for skills that might lead to employment.  Soft skills such as leadership skills, communication skills, time management skills, and teamwork skills are valued.  We like to see some breadth and some depth.  Volunteer experiences and paid employment may be given the same consideration.

When can I apply?

The Ontario University Application Centre (OUAC) sends out information to high schools notifying them when students may apply.  Due to the high number of applications that must be processed by the online OUAC system, invitations to apply are sent out in small batches to balance the load on the system.  When you receive your code for the OUAC system, you should immediately start applying to universities.  I recommend completing all application requirements as soon as feasible.