The faculty council of U of T’s Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering recently voted in favour of creating a fall reading week for undergraduate engineering students.

After sending a survey to the engineering community, consulting the associate chairs of the engineering programs, and reviewing other Canadian engineering programs, the Undergraduate Curriculum Committee (UCC) proposed implementing a fall break in early November, which would coincide with the Faculty of Arts & Science’s fall reading week.

Timing and accreditation

In an email to The Varsity, UCC Chair Evan Bentz wrote that the timing of this decision followed the faculty receiving its formal accreditation results in 2019. Engineering programs must be accredited by the Canadian Engineering Accreditation Board to ensure that their students can become licensed professional engineers in Canada. There are a series of requirements that a program must fulfill — including a minimum number of Accreditation Units — to acquire accreditation. 

In this case, a fall reading week reduces the number of class hours, and therefore the number of Accreditation Units that a student earns. However, Bentz explained that “Historically we have exceeded those requirements with a comfortable margin,” further adding that “the quality of education and the wellness of our students are more important than a count of lecture hours.”

Community consultations

Bentz noted that the primary factor in the decision was student wellness. “Students have expressed to us for years that they are experiencing too much stress in their fall term.”

In February and March, the University of Toronto Engineering Society sent out surveys to students, faculty, academic advisors, and teaching assistants in undergraduate engineering programs. Each group was asked to rank a series of fall break options. Across all groups, the full-week break was ranked the most preferable option, followed by the option of a Thanksgiving week break, and “no change” as the least preferable.

Based on the rankings and qualitative answers, the UCC concluded that students preferred a longer break to a shorter one. Its proposal for the faculty council stated that the findings are “consistent with the idea that many students are overwhelmed with work and believe that the status quo is unacceptable.” 

The UCC also made several recommendations that could be combined with the break to help relieve students’ stress. These included instituting a test ban before and after the break, and evaluating the effect of the break as time goes on.

In order to achieve the intended effect of the break on student wellness, the UCC’s report emphasized that, in order to make room for the break, content would need to be cut from fall courses, not just compacted. Bentz estimates that instructors will need to cut about eight per cent of the content in a class to accommodate the changes. 

Student responses

Sheral Kumar, Director of Skule Mental Wellness, one of the mental health advocacy groups that have been pushing for change within the faculty, commented that “Engineering students often have much higher workloads, [which] can definitely have an impact on stress levels and exacerbate mental health issues.” She added that “the spring semester is always much more manageable due to our spring reading week, and not having that type of break in the fall can be hard on one’s mental health.”

Two students interviewed by The Varsity likewise expressed enthusiasm about the fall reading week. Howard Chang, a first-year student studying engineering science, wrote that the break “would be helpful, especially since as a first year student, I am just getting accustomed to university life.” Chang also noted that first-year engineering students have mandatory classes and less electives, which adds to their stress. 

Aseer Chowdhury, a second-year student studying electrical and computer engineering, wrote that he was relieved to see that material would be cut from fall semester classes due to the new break, and echoed Chang’s point that a fall break might be especially helpful for first-year students. Chowdhury feels that, overall, “It’s definitely great for improving mental health and getting a break from class and studying.”