Teamwork

Individuals often shy away from teamwork because they have a preconceived notion that teamwork is inefficient.  How many times have you heard someone say, “I can do it by myself faster” or “I can do it by myself better”?  As an instructor, I have often heard these comments.  Why do instructors force students to form teams and study groups when individuals prefer to work alone?

Earlier today, I took a moment to reflect upon the importance of teamwork.  As Director of Admissions for the Faculty of Engineering at the University of Waterloo, I rely upon a highly-skilled team to review and assess applications to undergraduate engineering programs at the University of Waterloo.  It is a task that no individual could reasonably perform.  Effective teamwork is the only solution to this challenging problem.  Thankfully, I have one of the best teams working with me on this daunting task.  Our team also has the support of other teams on campus that help us with planning for the future, marketing programs, analyzing trends, and communicating with applicants.

 

Shown below is an image depicting teamwork taken on campus a few weeks ago.  Clearing a university campus of snow requires teamwork and coordination.  More than one snow plow is required to clear the university parking lots efficiently.  Thankfully, most of our snow has melted as our local temperature has been above freezing for over 24 hours.

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An effective team is clearly capable of superior work when compared to the output of an individual.  Just imagine how ridiculous it would be to play a team sport such as football with the support of a great team.  I am confident that Tom Brady, quarterback of the New England Patriots, would concede the game if facing an opposing team without an offensive line to support him.  Given a great team to support him, he was able to guide the New England Patriots to win Super Bowl LIII.

What do all the best engineering companies have in common?  They have highly productive teams.  We can’t possibly expect an engineer to build something amazing without the support of a team.  So why do individuals avoid teamwork if it has such great potential?

Here are some of my thoughts on why individuals avoid teamwork…

Communication

Teamwork requires effective communication.  This is a surprisingly difficult task.  You might know how to draw an object but instructing someone else to do so is not easy.  You might know how to write a function in a programming language but again, describing it takes almost as long as doing the coding yourself.  To communicate effectively, you need to learn to exchange information precisely using as little information as possible.  You need to understand your audience.  High school students are often trained to do the exact opposite.  In high school, essays have word counts.  Students learn to write sentences using as many unnecessary phrases as possible.  They do not tailor their writing to their audience.

Communication is also difficult because each individual interprets words and sentences differently.  Context is very important.  A sentence said by one individual may be interpreted in many different ways.  This is particularly true with the English language where idioms are common.  The English language rains cats and dogs with idioms!  Yes, that was a poor example of an idiom for those who might be translating this blog to another language.

However, effective communication is something that can be learned with time.  It takes practice.  Avoiding teamwork is a sure fire way to ensure that you do not practice your communication skills.  Waterloo Engineering students frequently work in teams to improve their communication skills and interpersonal skills.  Students also gain a valuable opportunity to expand their network when working in teams.  They learn to support each other.

Lacking a Common Goal

Some teams simply lack a common goal.  If all teammates are not working towards a common goal, you will never be completely successful as a team.  It is difficult, if not impossible, to satisfy several goals at once.  Even if you can satisfy multiple goals, the solution is unlikely to be simultaneously optimal for each goal.

This is why effective teams spend time establishing a common goal and a process for achieving the goal.  It may be difficult but this effort will always be rewarded.  Some teams spend more time planning a project than implementing it.  This is okay.  It is probably more effective than wasting time on interim solutions that can never satisfy the goal.  This is not to say that iterative design approaches are useless.  Design iterations clearly have value but only if you are working towards a common goal with a well engineered process.

Past Experiences

You can’t always choose your teammates.  Even if you can, you don’t always have a deep pool of candidates for your team.  If you are surrounded by people who are not working at the same level as you, teamwork can be incredibly frustrating.  In high school, this is often the case.  If you are the top student in your high school thinking about applying to Waterloo Engineering, you have probably been a part of several teams that have been dysfunctional where you have had to take on a leadership role.  Perhaps you even had to complete all of the work to achieve your team’s goals.  These bad experiences reinforce the belief that teamwork is doomed to failure.

However, even if you have had a few bad teamwork experiences in the past, this doesn’t mean that you should give up on teamwork entirely.  Many of life’s greatest engineering achievements required effective teamwork.  Thankfully, you will not always be surrounded by people who are not working at your level.  At the University of Waterloo, you are just as likely to work with someone working at an even higher level.  I can recall learning more from my teammates in my 4th year of studies than I did during some of my lectures.  By fourth year, I was working with teammates who knew immediately how to communicate ideas to me.

Incidentally, this is also why great engineering companies have productive teams.  Great companies hire great people.  When they put teams together, the members of the team communicate effectively and contribute positively to the team.  The end result is a highly effective team.

Final Thoughts

For those interested in another viewpoint on the value of teamwork, check out the following post by Alexander Hogeveen Rutter entitled, “The Value of Teamwork in 2018”.  In his post, he touches on some of the same ideas that I have mentioned but also provides some insight into how to be a good team player.  It is a great article worth reading.

So perhaps, if you are an individual that prefers working alone, you should give teamwork another chance.  It’s not always easy but if done correctly, teamwork is superior to working alone.

Ontario Engineering Competition

This past weekend, engineering students from universities across the Province of Ontario participated in the annual Ontario Engineering Competition.  This year’s event was organized by a dedicated team of student volunteers at McMaster University.  At the event, students participate in one of the following competitions:

  • Consulting Engineering
  • Engineering Communications
  • Extemporaneous Debate
  • Innovative Design
  • Junior Team Design
  • Senior Team Design
  • Re-Engineering
  • Programming

For those interested, you can review the Official Rulebook for the competitions.  Students often compete in small teams.  Some competitions require advance preparation while others involve a design challenge introduced at the competition.  All of the competitions require strong engineering skills and communication skills.

Thanks to sponsorship from Hatch, Aecon, OSPE, Crozier, Geotab, BBA, McMaster Engineering Society, Hydro One, MTE, Sandford Fleming Foundation, and numerous local sponsors, the annual event was a huge success.  Most participants stayed two nights at the Sheraton Hamilton not far from the university campus.  The event featured a welcome gala as well as a banquet at Liuna Station where the results of the competitions were announced.  All participants seemed to have a great time at the event.

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As a representative of the Sandford Fleming Foundation, I served as a judge for this year’s Innovative Design Competition.  This was my 6th year serving as a judge at the Ontario Engineering Competition and my 2nd year serving as a judge for the Innovative Design Competition.  I was one of 6 judges for the Innovative Design Competition.  The University of Waterloo had two teams competing, one for each co-op stream.  Our Waterloo B team placed third with the design of a new stackable battery pack design for use in light duty industrial equipment.  The McMaster team placed second with the design of an adaptive car windshield with integrated glare protection.  Our Waterloo A team placed first with the design of a medical bed system for preventing pressure injuries.  The Waterloo A team was also selected to receive this year’s Social Awareness Award.  The Waterloo A team goes by the name of Atlas Medical not to be confused with Atlas Medical or Atlas Medical.  You can read more about the winning team on the Mechanical and Mechatronics Engineering website.  The top two teams from Innovative Design Competition will compete at the Canadian Engineering Competition to be held at the University of Waterloo in March 2019.

On behalf of the Sandford Fleming Foundation, I would like to congratulate all of the volunteers, participants, and judges on a highly successful event.  Special congratulations go out to all of the winning teams who will represent the Province of Ontario at the Canadian Engineering Competition in March.  Next year’s Ontario Engineering Competition will be held at the University of Guelph.  Given the huge success of this year’s event, the organizing team at the University of Guelph will have big shoes to fill.

 

 

Completing Your Application

This is a gentle reminder that submitting an application to the Ontario Universities’ Application Centre (OUAC) is just the first step in the full application process.  If you have submitted an application to a Waterloo Engineering program, you will eventually receive a request to complete the Admission Information Form (AIF) and a request to complete an (optional) online interview using the Kira Talent platform.  For non-Ontario Secondary School students, you will also have other tasks to complete such as uploading transcripts and test scores.

You will likely receive periodic reminders to complete these tasks over the coming weeks.  I use the word “likely” because some students fail to enter correct contact information during the application process.  If the e-mail address you provide is invalid, you will not receive any reminders.  Make sure your e-mail address is correct and make sure you are reading your e-mail so that you do not miss out on something important.  Waterloo Engineering students face a constant challenge of keeping track of important deadlines.  Shown below is one example of an information system designed to help students keep track of important events on campus.  This information system is located outside the Coffee and Donut (C&D) Shop in Carl Pollock Hall.

An image of an information system displaying current events of relevance to Waterloo Engineering students.

One way to avoid receiving periodic reminders is to complete your application as soon as you can.  Completing the application process early will ensure that your application receives full consideration for both early admission offers and scholarships.  We will not send out early offers of admission to students who have not completed the required portions of the application process.

The online interview is not a required portion of the application process but completion of the online interview is highly recommended.  We assign scores to the interviews.  These scores are added to your admission average.  Completion of the online interview has the effect of increasing your admission average.

Failure to complete a required task by the admission deadline can result in an offer of admission not being granted to a qualified applicant.  There were a few students last year who were denied offers of admission for not completing the AIF.  The students were academically strong enough to receive an offer of admission if they had completed their applications.  Unfortunately, they did not do so.  We will only issue an offer of admission if applications are complete.

 

Selecting the Right Engineering Program

With the January 16th application deadline approaching quickly, I have received many comments from potential applicants on which engineering program to select.  If you are an applicant reading this blog post, you have probably already read my blog post on your Chances of Admission for Fall 2019.  To some applicants, this blog post offers hope.  The data shows that applicants with lower averages sometimes receive offers of admission over students with higher averages.  It is proof that grades are not the only factor in our admission decisions.

We have been very successful in finding the right students for our programs.  After all, no one would have thought back in 1957 that a small university founded on farm land would within 61 years become one of the top universities in Canada with over 33,000 undergraduate students.  The image below is a photo collage that is located in our new Engineering 7 building.  The photos summarize the history of our Faculty of Engineering.

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A photo collage depicting the history of the Faculty of Engineering at the University of Waterloo.

However, to a high average applicant, the same blog post can be depressing.  An applicant with a 95% average often has a very difficult time dealing with the thought of possibly being rejected.  Not being granted admission seems too much like failing.  Most applicants with a 95% average have not had to endure failing.  For the few that have suffered failures, they have learned that failing is clearly something to avoid.  In some select cases, applicants fear rejection so much that they start to consider programs for which they are more likely to receive an offer of admission.  This is a very bad idea for a number of reasons that I will try to explain further.

Motivation Can Lead to Success

If you are motivated to succeed, you are more likely to be successful in a challenging engineering program.  This is not to say that you must love every minute of your engineering studies.  Like a full-time job, studying engineering requires hard work.  There will be rewarding moments but there will also be times that test your motivation to succeed.

For some students, graduating from a Waterloo Engineering program is reward enough to justify five years of hard work.  For other students, the prospect of a decent career after graduation is a strong motivation.  One thing that is clear is that five years is a big commitment of time.  The average student studying engineering at the University of Waterloo has spent over one fifth of their entire life studying engineering by the time they graduate!

If you like what you are doing, it will be much easier to justify the hard work.  When I work on rewarding projects, I rarely keep track of the time I have spent on them.  I only watch the clock when I am doing something I dislike.  I am sure that I am not alone in this behavior.

You Cannot Control the Admission Process

You might think selecting an engineering program that typically has a higher probability of admission for a particular average will always produce a better result but this is not always true.   There are simply too many variables to control.  Changing one variable may not be enough to get the result you desire.

This year, for example, early application demand for Mechatronics Engineering and Mechanical Engineering are approximately equal.  If this trend continues, it is quite possible that the admission averages will drop slightly for Mechatronics Engineering and rise slightly for Mechanical Engineering.  It is not clear how much the entrance averages will change but it demonstrates the challenge of trying to control the admission process.  If too many applicants try to control the admission process, the rules of the game effectively change.

The only variables you can reasonably control are the grades you receive and the quality of your application materials.  Everything else is largely beyond your scope of control.  You cannot optimize the admission process if you cannot control all of the independent variables.  If you try too hard to choose an easier path, it might even affect your motivation for completing your application materials which can have a negative impact upon the quality of your application materials.

You Might Be Special

There are some genuinely interesting applicants who get into Waterloo Engineering with lower averages and great extra-curricular activities.  These applicants are often highly successful in our programs.  There is very little harm in applying to our engineering programs.  At worst, you will spend one application fee and a few hours applying to find out that you, like many exceptional students, were rejected.  At best, you will get into a rewarding program that you may really enjoy.

Many people, including myself, play the lottery in the hope of winning a big prize.  I never expect to win.  I know the odds are against me when I play.  However, if I can spare a few dollars to have the chance of winning the lottery, it is a chance I am willing to take.  Imagine all the good I could do if I suddenly won $60 million dollars.

As a potential applicant, imagine all the good you could do if you get an opportunity to study engineering at the University of Waterloo.  Is it worth applying?  I would say yes.

So How Do I Select the Right Program?

Choose a program that interests you.  Do your research into the program.  Talk to students about the program.  Find out what they like and what they don’t like.  Make sure you are reasonably well-prepared for the program.  Be realistic but also be willing to take a few calculated risks.  Be fearless.  Fortune favors the bold.

 

Holiday Closure

The University of Waterloo is officially closed for the holidays until January 2nd.  During the holiday closure, most university buildings are locked and inaccessible.  Building temperatures are set to normal nighttime settings to conserve energy.  The only buildings remaining open during the annual shutdown are a few university residences that remain open for students who are unable to go home for the holidays.

The Engineering Admissions Office will not be able to return calls or e-mails until the university reopens on January 2nd.  We will likely need a few days to deal with all of the inquiries we receive over the holiday season.  Please be assured that we will do our best to respond to your inquiries as soon as we can.

On behalf of the Engineering Admissions Office, we wish you a very happy holiday season and a great start to the new year!

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!