Posted May 31st, 2017 by Tyler Irving

Designing the engineer of 2050: Canadian engineering educators to meet in Toronto

  • Professor Greg Evans (ChemE) is one of the co-chairs of the 7th annual Canadian Engineering Education Association conference, hosted by U of T Engineering June 4 to 7, 2017. (Photo: Neil Ta)

Leading engineering educators will converge  at U of T Engineering from June 4–7 for a major national conference organized around a single urgent question: How can we prepare the next generation of engineering leaders to address critical challenges that will face society 30 years in the future?

“We wanted to move people outside of their normal comfort zone, to provoke them to think in ways that would be radically different,” says Greg Evans (ChemE). He and Professor Lisa Romkey (EngSci) are co-chairing the 7th annual Canadian Engineering Education Association conference.

The organizers have prepared various scenarios to challenge participants — one of these imagines a world where fossil fuel reserves have been completely exhausted, while another imagines abundant, low-cost energy for all. Prompted through these and other widely contrasting scenarios, participants will work together to identify common educational elements that will help prepare tomorrow’s engineers for the many possible futures they may face.

Educating the engineer of 2050 is the theme of Evans’s participatory keynote workshop, a different approach to the traditional keynote lecture. “We wanted the format to be in line with what we think should be going on in the classroom,” he says. “That means collaboration rather than the old concept of the ‘sage on the stage’.”

Professor Susan McCahan (MIE). (Photo: Michael Freeman)

Susan McCahan (MIE), U of T’s Vice-Provost, Innovations in Undergraduate Education and the honorary chair of the conference, says the approach is consistent with the latest findings by educational researchers. “We’ve known for a long time that collaborative learning is more effective than people learning by themselves, but there are barriers to implementation,” she says.

McCahan gives the example of classroom design. “When you have everybody is sitting in rows facing the stage, you have to work against the space to make collaboration happen,” she says.

To disrupt the conventional learning model, U of T Engineering is piloting technology-enhanced active learning (TEAL) classrooms, in which students sit in groups and screens are positioned so that they can be seen from any direction. TEAL rooms are a central feature of the forthcoming Centre for Engineering Innovation & Entrepreneurship. “It’s the one of the first complete buildings where all of the spaces are designed around the idea of collaboration,” says McCahan.

Collaborative learning is just one of the educational innovations central to the conference. Another major theme is diversity. Speakers such as Professor Valerie Davidson of the University of Guelph and Professor Mary Wells of the University of Waterloo will speak about creating an inclusive engineering landscape within both academia and the profession itself.

“Women are now graduating from engineering programs in exceptional numbers,” says McCahan, pointing out that the Faculty’s incoming undergraduate cohort is now more than 40 per cent women. “At the same time, there is something of a leaky pipeline: they subsequently leave the profession in higher numbers than we’d like to see. We need a cultural change to make sure that those women are moving through an education system and into a profession that are both equitable.”

Diversity within the profession will also be integral to the future scenarios devised by Evans and his team. And while 2050 may seem like a distant horizon, Evans suggests it may be closer than we realize.

“A practicing engineer in 2050 will have been educated in 2040, which means the curriculum they learn will need to have been designed and phased in starting around 2030,” he says. “It really isn’t as far out as people might imagine.”

Follow the conference on social media using #CEEA17