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The Varsity

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U of T’s best students need more challenging programs

By Patrick Baud
Published: 9:00 pm, 3 March 2013
Vol CXXXIII, No. 18 under

Students entering the engineering science (EngSci) program at U of T are often in for a rude awakening. Even those who attended Canada’s top high schools struggle to keep up with a program that requires spending about 30 hours per week in the classroom, nearly twice as many hours as the average student. First- and second-year EngSci students take a common set of six courses per year in order to expose them to as many subjects as possible, ranging from Newtonian physics to systems biology. In third- and fourth-year, they specialize in everything from aerospace to biomedical engineering.

EngSci is considered one of the most challenging engineering programs in the world. The drop-out rate far exceeds that of any other applied science discipline at the university. But EngSci also produces results. Employers and graduate schools alike seek out its graduates because of the skills they develop through the program and their exposure to a wide range of engineering problems. While the EngSci model is not appropriate for every student, it seems to be a good way to offer talented students an education that is at once broad and deep. So why is it that no equivalent program exists in the social sciences at U of T?

Even the most diligent and self-motivated students would struggle to find anything comparable to EngSci in the Faculty of Arts & Science. There are no programs of study or even combinations of programs in Arts & Science that could match the breadth of exposure to the humanities and social sciences that EngSci offers to applied science. Moreover, there are no programs that offer students the opportunity to develop the level of skill that EngSci students develop over the course of their programs.

There are programs at other universities that do a better job exposing talented students to a wide range of disciplines within the humanities and the social sciences. The famous Philosophy, Politics, and Economics (PPE) program at the University of Oxford is a good example. Harvard University’s Social Studies, which offers students far more choice in the courses that they can take than either EngSci or the ppe program at Oxford, is another model. Despite their virtues, neither of these programs put the same emphasis on the fundamental skills of the social sciences as EngSci puts on the skills that define the applied sciences.

The next president of the university, whose appointment is due to be announced soon, should create a new flagship undergraduate social sciences program modeled on EngSci. The first two years of the program should be devoted to giving students a broad grounding in the key disciplines of the humanities and social sciences, especially philosophy, politics and economics, while the final two years should give them an opportunity to specialize in a particular discipline. The program should culminate in a capstone project, perhaps modeled on the small senior thesis program currently offered by the political science department.

The goal of the program should be to see students develop the kinds of skills they will need to solve problems and provide leadership, no matter what line of work they pursue after university. These skills include public speaking, quantitative analysis, as well as analytical and persuasive writing. At present, none of these are formally taught to a sufficient extent in social science programs. As with EngSci, not all students will be able to keep up with the pace that such a program will require, but those who can will benefit greatly. The next president would do well to give them that opportunity.

Patrick Baud’s column appears every two issues. 

  • Pierre Harfouche

    I’m currently in the Engineering Science program and now that I think about it, I do agree that U of T has no flagship humanities program. They are all just “good”. (U of T humanities is pretty well ranked in the world, or so I am led to believe)

    However, it is important to note that Engineering Science, while teaching you a lot, is also a plague of its own – with employers often not knowing how much more students learn. Students sometimes feel like they are wasting their time – excelling in the program but not having the time to explore their interests in the first two years.

    EngSci is ultimately a Grad School breeding ground – with 60% of the graduates going to grad schools (the top going to Caltech, MIT, and other big american schools) and only 30% going to work as a traditional “Engineer” in a company. The opposite is usually true in the other Engineering programs.

    I’d be interested in seeing if this idea catches on with University Admin.

    • http://www.facebook.com/patrickbaud Patrick Baud

      I think that’s a good point Pierre. In the case of a lot of the students who would be interested in the sort of program that I suggest, many of them would already be on a path to graduate or professional school of some kind. The program would serve to develop skills that would serve them well in business, graduate or law school and later in their professional careers.

  • http://twitter.com/9x19 Rishi Maharaj

    Obligatory: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BcPO4yhWSUg

    - EngSci Class of 1T2+PEY

  • https://paul.kishimoto.name/ Paul Kishimoto

    From an institutional politics point of view, in return for its ‘elite’ reputation EngSci must make do with second-class “Division” status next to the other APSE “Departments”. It has no faculty (the Chair and Vice-Chair(s) remain appointed in their home departments) and consequently no graduate program or research effort (sending top students to postgraduate studies at *other* schools, while good for those students, doesn’t look great on UofT). I wouldn’t be surprised if its role as an attractor of top engineering applicants were viewed grudgingly by the other departments, and accepted in part because they expect some of these to return to them as a consequence of the high “drop-out” rate (first year EngScis more often “drop out” into other engineering programs than out of the Faculty altogether) or as postgraduate students.

    I think these dynamics are crucial to consider when advocating the establishment of an elite program in FAS. How to convince the hundreds (I believe) of departments, programs, centres and colleges that they should contribute resources to a new ‘flagship’ effort that will draw away their top students? They may not fall in line, and leadership on the part of a new President would be required to see it through.

    Oxford with one third and Harvard with one fifth of UofT’s undergrad population are highly selective even for the marginal applicant. They may be models for prestige, but perhaps not models for how to set up small, prestigious programs within an institution as large as UofT.

  • http://www.facebook.com/harfouchem Mark Harfouche

    I think this is a great idea. Sadly, I think the execution would be difficult especially in a school as separated as UofT. The Engineering Science Administration often has a hard time finding professors to teach their classes (Math classes for example) since other departments do not see the Division of Engineering Science as their responsibility, they sometimes see it as a parasite (the ECE and Civil Engineering departments for example). I think one of the biggest advantages of the program is that it acted as an incubator to a highly motivated student body interested in their academic progress. The well tailored accelerated course definitely help and I feel like I am able to communicate with engineers and scientists in all disciplines.

    Pierre, I think the important statistic that you did focus on is that less than 10% of the students leave the program to do something that the program different than the program focus. This statistic is a very good indicator that the students that went through the program enjoyed their stay in the program. For example, a large majority of the students in a research group that work right next to mine are all leaving Caltech to work in WallStreet. These students have all written (multiple) papers in top journals but they disliked their stay in their program so much that they are willing to give up all their acquired fame to take a different career path.

    Going to graduate school should not be regarded as “failing to find a real job”. Many advanced scientific and R&D oriented jobs require advanced degrees to attain. In fact, I would say the goal of engineering science is to train students that break the barriers of conventional engineering using science.

    You said that only a few students go to top US graduate school, that is because there is literally only a handful of US graduate schools that will have the same caliber of students that come out of EngSci. UofT is ranked somewhere near (or above) the top 10 engineering schools in the world. I don’t think staying at UofT should be considered “like every other engineer” in Canada.

    I think students “not having time to explore their other hobbies” is pretty false. Students that go to engineering science are usually those that were part of multiple clubs during their high school and still excelled academically. You know better than I do, that a disproportionate majority of club executives are usually Engineering Science students.

    • Pierre Harfouche

      In first and second year, most students don’t end up joining many clubs – in third year they go venture out and get disproportionately involved. You are right in stating that.

      But don’t get me wrong, I agree with the entirety of your post. And I hope my previous post didn’t imply that EngSci is a bad program – only that is not to train the “traditional” Engineer.

      • http://www.facebook.com/harfouchem Mark Harfouche

        I think the only problem with Engineering Science is that it sometimes brands itself as a program that trains “better traditional engineers” while I, and many others that have stayed through the program, now understand that it was really meant them to go beyond the the challenges of what other programs train you to tackle.

        • Pierre Harfouche

          It also continues to use an Opera Singer as a marketing tool…

          • PC

            Don’t forget the conductor of the boston orchestra

        • Brittany Tyler

          “…now understand that it was really meant them to go beyond the the challenges of what other programs train you to tackle.”
          That’s debatable. I don’t know if you mean other programs like women and gender studies or other programs like mechanical engineering. If you mean the former, then yes, definitely. If you mean the latter, then no, most definitely not.

  • PC

    One of the problems with setting up these ‘elite’ programs like EngSci is that it is absolutely a winner takes all. Those that rank in the top 10 of EngSci do make it, and they make it big. However if you were unlucky enough to be the other 170 students, then you would have went through 3 years of taking the most inane and difficult material in North America for nothing and at the expense of any social life. If you want to do even decently well in EngSci, it is not uncommon to pull 80-90 hour weeks, if you want to get into the top 10, you can expect 100+ hours a week, this is why many EngSci go work for investment banks after they graduate.

    Those 170 students would have been better served had they gone to a regular engineering program where they would need only a quarter of the effort and easily achieve a 3.9-4.0 while also having something resembling a social life. They would also gain more practical and specific knowledge learned at a pace that allows them to actually retain the material rather than the fire drill nature of EngSci education which comes from trying to cover 8 disciplines of engineering in 2 years and the 3rd trying to catch up. Basically you end up with 95% of the graduating class very disgruntled with the program and 5% that absolutely kill it.

    Engscis prepare you well for very very specific areas of engineering such as controls, machine learning, FPGA routing & mapping, structures, transportation, certain areas of biomed, etc. If your interests lie elsewhere, tough luck because your courses are chosen for you. As to been coveted by employers and grad schools, again if you are not in the top 10, no one really cares. Outside of Toronto, no one even knows what engineering science is, just that you have no experience in anything they care about.

    Even though most EngSci would be at the top of any regular engineering program (which they are once they get to 4th year and they can take regular courses, but by then it is too late for grad school or building up a coherent set of courses to focus your career), the fact that you concentrate all your talent into one program results in one of the most brutal bell curves ever devised by man. To put it into perspective, in 4th year when EngSci takes “regular” engineering classes with the “regular” engineers, you would usually find the EngSci average to be around 95% and the class average to be around 60-70%. Now imagine you put these EngScis into one class and bell them, now the 90% becomes 70%, the 95% become 80% and the 100% become 90%.

    This is why Rishi made the video.

    • Justin Tobia

      I think you are being overly harsh about EngSci. First of all, you don’t need to be in the top 10 to be doing well. If you’re one of the 170 then you probably have received an amazing background and are pulling a decent GPA; and by 3rd year, you probably have small class sizes and know your professors on a one-on-one basis. How rewarding is that? Following up on that, since when is 3rd year part of the most inane and difficult material (maybe if you’re an aero or ece)? Don’t get me wrong the first two years require a huge commitment and are terribly difficult (that robot might steal your soul!).

      Next, I think your argument on the expense of “any” social life is exaggerated or presumptuous. You’re able to keep some level of a social life during most of the first two years (and definitely after that) if you’re able to manage your time well (and isn’t that a struggle in the real world anyway?). If you’re expecting to be involved in as many extracurriculars as high school and see your friends as frequently as you did in high school, then you’re way off. And not everyone desires such an active social life anyway. For some people, such as myself, EngSci impedes rather than destroys your social life.

      Again, I think you are being presumptuous when you say the 170 students would have been better served in one of the Core 8 engineering programs. Some (or all? – not an expert here) of the EngSci options just don’t compare to the Core 8 streams. Is there an aerospace equivalent in the Core 8? Not that I am aware of (Barring the argument of being hired for aerospace as mentioned in the above EngSci video by Rishi. I’m talking about educational content). Additionally, the Energy Systems option gives you the freedom and background to pursue one or both of the Mechanical Engineering – Energy Stream or ECE – Energy Systems Stream. This freedom just isn’t available in the Core 8 programs.

      Now I can’t say that EngSci isn’t lacking on the practical side when compared to the Core 8 programs. But for one, that’s kind of the point of EngSci; to take a more theoretical and first principles approach to engineering. Also some people choose EngSci because (not in spite that) it gives them two years to decide what kind of engineer they would like to be, and because they can switch out into any Core 8 program after first year, if they change their mind.

      For your argument on the specific pre-selected courses of EngSci, yeah it’s true, you’re struck with them. But at the same time, it’s not like this fact is shrouded by the DIvision. Anyone who had considered EngSci seriously and undertook the most basic research on EngSci would have found the first 2 years of pre-selected courses and their descriptions. Applicants should know well what courses they are signing up for, and if they end up choosing EngSci, then they shouldn’t be surprised when they end up taking those courses. But yeah, not many people know what EngSci is, and the program lacks the specification of the Core 8 programs. That’s a drawback. But EngSci isn’t for people who want to take one of the Core 8 programs! People shouldn’t take EngSci for the name, but because they are interested in the program and it’s Options!

      Last, I’m not too sure about your argument on grad schools. As Pierre pointed out, 60% of EngSci graduates go on to do graduate studies. But I do agree on the nightmarish bell curve. And I do personally believe that winter term of 2nd year is far too overloaded, and should be cut back if we want that term to have any meaningful constructive impact.

      • Brittany Tyler

        Justin, definitely agree with you on most things except when you say
        “Is there an aerospace equivalent in the Core 8? Not that I am aware of …Additionally, the Energy Systems option gives you the freedom and background to pursue one or both of the Mechanical Engineering – Energy Stream or ECE – Energy Systems Stream. This freedom just isn’t available in the Core 8 programs.”

        I don’t think that’s true. Just by saying, “it gives you the the freedom and background to pursue one or both of the mechanical engineering [streams]” you’re acknowledging that you can do those things in a Core 8 program. I would argue that perhaps the only options in EngSci that can’t really be compared (or you would have a difficult time comparing) would be Physics and the Math/Finance option. For example, energy systems can be taken through mech (and I’m too lazy to check ATM but probably through ECE as well), aero through the mechatronics option + technical electives offered to mech students (there are two in 4S) (and again, probably through ECE as well), biomed through the bio stream in mech (probably also through chem, materials, possibly indy, and ECE), nano through chem, infra through civ and electrical through ECE (duh).

        I *personally* believe Engsci is probably one of the best options if you are very sure you want to go to grad school in Ontario (though better if in Toronto). However, that being said, if you plan on going outside the province to do grad school,where I guarantee you almost no one besides people in Quebec knows about Engsci and/or want to go into industry, I would almost immediately advise against Engsci. The fact still remains that at the end of the day, we will both graduate with an engineering degree and we will both have the same qualifications to get our P.Eng designations. Building a robot is not exclusive to Engsci and the things I learned in first year are simply being built upon now (i.e. Engsci didn’t teach my anything radically new).

        tl;dr Do what makes you happy, whether that involves going into Engsci or the Core 8, because at the end of the day, the degree is the same. Choose based on where you want to go after undergrad.

    • Justin Tobia

      I think you are being overly harsh about EngSci. First of all, you don’t need to be in the top 10 to be doing well. If you’re one of the 170 then you probably have received an amazing background and are pulling a decent GPA; and by 3rd year, you probably have small class sizes and know your professors on a one-on-one basis. How rewarding is that? Following up on that, since when is 3rd year part of the most inane and difficult material (maybe if you’re an aero or ece)? Don’t get me wrong the first two years require a huge commitment and are terribly difficult (that robot might steal your soul!).

      Next, I think your argument on the expense of “any” social life is exaggerated or presumptuous. You’re able to keep some level of a social life during most of the first two years (and definitely after that) if you’re able to manage your time well (and isn’t that a struggle in the real world anyway?). If you’re expecting to be involved in as many extracurriculars as high school and see your friends as frequently as you did in high school, then you’re way off. And not everyone desires such an active social life anyway. For some people, such as myself, EngSci impedes rather than destroys your social life.

      Again, I think you are being presumptuous when you say the 170 students would have been better served in one of the Core 8 engineering programs. Some (or all? – not an expert here) of the EngSci options just don’t compare to the Core 8 streams. Is there an aerospace equivalent in the Core 8? Not that I am aware of (Barring the argument of being hired for aerospace as mentioned in the above EngSci video by Rishi. I’m talking about educational content). Additionally, the Energy Systems option gives you the freedom and background to pursue one or both of the Mechanical Engineering – Energy Stream or ECE – Energy Systems Stream. This freedom just isn’t available in the Core 8 programs.

      Now I can’t say that EngSci isn’t lacking on the practical side when compared to the Core 8 programs. But for one, that’s kind of the point of EngSci; to take a more theoretical and first principles approach to engineering. Also some people choose EngSci because (not in spite that) it gives them two years to decide what kind of engineer they would like to be, and because they can switch out into any Core 8 program after first year, if they change their mind.

      For your argument on the specific pre-selected courses of EngSci, yeah it’s true, you’re struck with them. But at the same time, it’s not like this fact is shrouded by the DIvision. Anyone who had considered EngSci seriously and undertook the most basic research on EngSci would have found the first 2 years of pre-selected courses and their descriptions. Applicants should know well what courses they are signing up for, and if they end up choosing EngSci, then they shouldn’t be surprised when they end up taking those courses. But yeah, not many people know what EngSci is, and the program lacks the specification of the Core 8 programs. That’s a drawback. But EngSci isn’t for people who want to take one of the Core 8 programs! People shouldn’t take EngSci for the name, but because they are interested in the program and it’s Options!

      Last, I’m not too sure about your argument on grad schools. As Pierre pointed out, 60% of EngSci graduates go on to do graduate studies. But I do agree on the nightmarish bell curve. And I do personally believe that winter term of 2nd year is far too overloaded, and should be cut back if we want that term to have any meaningful constructive impact.

  • Craig Nelson

    I have nothing to say.

  • sfsadfsdf

    I love how people always ignore the sciences side of the faculty of arts and science,

    • http://www.facebook.com/patrickbaud Patrick Baud

      I had actually wanted to make the case for a flagship science program in addition to the humanities and social sciences one, but there wasn’t room in 600 words to do so. I chose to write about the social sciences because that’s my background, but I’d be very interested to hear your perspective on how this idea might be adapted to the sciences.

  • David

    “Employers and graduate schools alike seek out its graduates because of the skills they develop through the program and their exposure to a wide range of engineering problems. ”

    That’s a bit of an exaggeration.