Outside the box

Photo collage includes an iceburg, salmon, polar bear, person in a boat, and a coastal town

Photo illustration by Wendy Treverton

About two years ago, Queen’s Engineering Dean Kevin Deluzio, Sc’88, MASc’90, PhD’98, sat down for a conversation with Stephen Smith, Sc’72, LLD’17, the co-founder and executive chairman of First National Financial and namesake of the Smith School of Business at Queen’s. 

It was one of several meetings Mr. Smith had had with leadership at Queen’s. But it was at this meeting that something pivotal happened – something that would set in motion a series of events that would culminate in a seismic shift for the Faculty of Engineering and Applied Science.

Dr. Deluzio had been thinking big about what the future of engineering education at Queen’s might look like, and he wanted to share his thoughts with Mr. Smith. 

Looking back, Mr. Smith remembers how compelling Dr. Deluzio’s vision was. Mr. Smith was already considering a significant donation to Queen’s Engineering, but by the end of that first meeting, he was beginning to think it wasn’t enough. “It was clear that the Dean had put a lot of work into what he thought was required to take engineering education not only to just a top Canadian standard, but to a top global standard. He was very convincing.” 

Dr. Deluzio remembers that first meeting as quite open and frank. Along with chatting about his vision, he and Mr. Smith talked about everything from their similar humble upbringings to the opportunities that their Queen’s Engineering educations opened for them. 

“I remember both of us saying that when we went into engineering, we weren’t sure exactly what it was or where it would lead,” says Dr. Deluzio with a laugh. “But it turned out to have a profound effect on both of us.”

For Mr. Smith, it was both the technical and problem-solving skills that he picked up as an electrical engineering student that were huge. Especially, he told Dr. Deluzio, when he went to start First National, now one of Canada’s largest non-bank mortgage lenders. Not only did that education help him develop the mortgage software that would underpin First National’s early success, but it also taught him the power of perseverance. 

“Problem-solving is a big aspect of engineering,” he said, “and engineers are good problem-solvers.” 

There’s no nonsense with engineers, he added. No drama. You give an engineer a tough challenge, and they’ll work as hard as they can to solve it.             

Dr. Deluzio leaned forward. It was exactly those problem-solving and perseverance skills that he wanted to focus on helping Queen’s engineering students build. As he told Mr. Smith that day, the world is rapidly changing, and the problems engineers tackle are increasingly complex ones – think about questions of climate change and energy alone. Dealing with these issues still requires the technical know-how central to any engineering program, but they also demand empathy, leadership, and the ability to work across disciplines and cultural boundaries.

“We need to graduate engineers who understand the social implications of their work,” he said.

This wasn’t an idea Dr. Deluzio had arrived at all on his own. Over the past few decades, there has been a growing recognition that engineering education needs to incorporate more socially relevant material, more independent and multidisciplinary thinking, and more experiential, real-world learning. And indeed, the schools now widely thought of as the world leaders in engineering education — places like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Olin College of Engineering, Aalborg University, Delft University of Technology, and University College London – have been expanding these elements into their engineering programs. 

Queen’s Engineering itself has integrated aspects of these elements across the Faculty, most notably in its expanded internship program., and through a call to enhance multi-disciplinary learning in the Faculty’s Strategic Plan. But as Dr. Deluzio told Mr. Smith in that early conversation, and others that would follow, there was a desire to do much more: they wanted to truly re-imagine engineering education at Queen’s and become one of those pre-eminent engineering schools that puts the human at the centre of it all.         

Mr. Smith’s response: “Well, what would a true transformation look like, and what would it take to get there?”

Over the next two years, Dr. Deluzio worked with a small internal team to build a vision, keeping Mr. Smith updated along the way. In February of this year, Mr. Smith called Dr. Deluzio to give him the good news: he was ready to make a precedent-setting gift to Queen’s Engineering. 

“You’re very persuasive,” he told Dr. Deluzio. “And I believe in this vision and your leadership to pull this off.” 

“A big part of this transformation is going to be about making sure students understand that engineering isn’t just about building widgets; it’s also about understanding the social implications of their work.”

His gift: $100 million. It is the the largest gift given to engineering education in Canada by a factor of four. In recognition of that generosity, Queen’s Engineering became the Stephen J.R. Smith Faculty of Engineering and Applied Science, or Smith Engineering for short. 

Electrical and Computer Engineering Professor Brian Frank, Sc’97, MASc’99, PhD’02, was part of the small team at Queen’s who helped answer Mr. Smith’s questions and build the framework for what this re-imagined engineering education might look like. He is also the DuPont Canada Chair in Engineering Education Research and Development. It’s tough to articulate just how transformational this gift will be, he says. “This gives us a chance to really rethink what an engineering program is about and best prepare our students to tackle these complex, open-ended challenges the world is facing.”  

Dr. Frank is quick to point out, however, that this rethink won’t be done by a small group of people at Queen’s. There will be implementation teams to guide the process, he says, and the input of faculty, students, staff, alumni and the wider Queen’s community will be key. 

“That’s the only way this is going to work,” he says. 

So where do they all start? Dr. Frank says the Smith Engineering community will collectively build a vision for implementing the four pillars of this transformation: problem-based learning, competency-based learning, experiential learning, and human-centred learning. Each will be incorporated at the course, program, and Faculty-wide levels over the next 10 years.   

Problem-based learning (PBL) is all about giving students the chance to focus on real-world problems throughout their four years, says Dr. Frank. As he and the academic implementation team saw on a recent visit to Denmark’s Aalborg University – one of the leading PBL schools in the world – integrating realistic problems from Year 1 not only helps students develop the skills to actually solve them, but also boosts motivation. Like at many engineering schools, the first-year engineering program at Queen’s is front-end loaded with a lot of math and science fundamentals before students understand why that knowledge is important, says Dr. Frank. “That can be tough for that student who comes in wanting to make a real difference in that world.” 

“This is a great opportunity to engage women”, says Queen’s Mechanical and Materials Engineering Professor Heidi Ploeg, Sc’88, MASc’91, PhD’00. She is also on the academic implementation team. “One thing we know from the literature and experience is that presenting engineering as an application, as a problem to be solved, is much more attractive to women than presenting it as a tool,” she says. “So, as the Queen’s Chair for Women in Engineering, I’m really hoping that by taking this problem-based approach, we are also helping to recruit and retain women in engineering.”    

The second pillar, competency-based learning, is about re-thinking how program goals are communicated and assessed. Right now, as in most Queen’s programs, engineering students usually need 50 per cent in each course to pass. But students don’t receive feedback on how they are progressing in developing key skills, and sometimes struggle to articulate those skills to employers. “It’s entirely possible for an engineering student to pass their courses and still have skills gaps by the time they graduate,” says Dr. Frank. “A competency-based approach would minimize those gaps and ensure students graduate with all the skills we believe they need to thrive as an engineer in the 21st century.”

Experiential learning is the third pillar and will focus on giving students opportunities for deeper engagement and experience with industry. This will mean more internships, summer jobs, and exchange opportunities outside of Queen’s, but it will also mean bringing more industry-relevant projects into the classroom. “We do all of this to some extent now, but I think we can do it a lot more and a lot more deliberately across Smith Engineering,” says Keith Pilkey, Queen’s Mechanical and Materials Engineering Professor and Department Head. He is another member of the academic implementation team. 

As Dr. Pilkey saw during the team’s visit to Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands recently, engaging the local community can be especially helpful in engaging students. 

“There are so many opportunities in Kingston for partnership – the business community, the municipality, Utilities Kingston, beyond – and we could bring this right into the new curriculum,” he says.    

The fourth pillar, human-centered learning, makes explicit what’s at the core of this entire transformation and the other three pillars: a human-centered approach to engineering education. As Dr. Deluzio likes to say, the problems that engineers solve are human ones – “there are no others that engineers work on.” And when engineers don’t truly think of that human element, bad mistakes can happen, he adds. “A big part of this transformation is going to be about making sure students understand that engineering isn’t just about building widgets; it’s also about understanding the social implications of their work.”   

“The whole motivation behind this is that to get our students to tackle these wicked, grand challenges and make a lasting impact on them we need to train them differently,” Dr. Deluzio says, referring to what engineers call “wicked problems,” or problems with conflicting and poorly defined goals that seem unsolvable.

As for how, exactly, these four pillars will be applied inside and outside the classroom, Dr. Deluzio stresses Dr. Frank’s earlier point: that this will be an ongoing and organic process involving faculty, staff, students, alumni, and other internal and external Queen’s partners, including industry. The general idea, though, is that this transformation will happen in three large phases, with each lasting three or four years, he says. 

The specifics of the phases are still being worked out, but the first will likely include a re-imagined first year program that introduces more real-world applications of the fundamentals that students learn. “If we can build a really cool first year that motivates students and sets the foundation for other things we want to try, I think that’s really going to help set this up for success,” says Dr. Frank. 

None of this will be easy, of course, says Dr. Deluzio. One of the big challenges will be resources. Hiring new faculty and staff who can thrive under this vision will take extra focus, as will properly supporting current faculty and staff with the transition. Finding and building the teaching and learning spaces on campus to accommodate this transformation will also take time.   

Another big challenge will be doing all of this as “the train is going down the track,” says Dr. Deluzio. Other engineering schools have improved their programs with some elements of the four pillars, but few have incorporated all of them or done this at the scale that Smith Engineering will. 

“Our program is already a really good one with departmental units that have very strong identities,” says Dr. Deluzio. “So doing these improvements across Smith Engineering without pausing anything is going to take some real thought and patience to get a Queen’s-specific model that will work within our culture and for our students.”        

That model will still include a strong research mandate. In fact, Dr. Pilkey says engineering research at Queen’s will be enhanced through this transformation. “We’re going to bring some of the research happening here right into the classroom, so that we’ll see this really improved synergy of graduate research and what we do in the undergraduate program.” He points to Aalborg University as a prime example of how this could look. There, some undergrads work on the same research projects or in the same research spaces that involve graduate students and industry. “There’s no reason why undergraduate students can’t work on problems that have some very complex science and technology behind them,” says Dr. Pilkey.

As Dr. Ploeg sees it, this entire re-imagining of engineering education at Queen’s is one massive design project – something engineers know a thing or two about. And, as she puts it, when you’re tackling a design project, the first step, a very important one, is to understand and define the problem. 

“So that’s our job right now,” she says. “We are gathering information and learning, so we can focus our efforts to create an engineering program that prepares our students for their futures.”  

For Dr. Ploeg herself, one big hope is that this shift to a curriculum that focuses on more real-world problems will translate to a student body that looks more like our Canadian population. She also hopes that by the time they graduate, those students will look – and actually be – as energetic about tackling the world’s complex problems as when they came to Queen’s. 

“What we find is that our students come in with really high motivation, and so we want to take advantage of that and use it within their training,” she says. 

Dr. Pilkey hopes for the same and thinks that by nurturing all that energy and motivation, students will have a better understanding of the real impacts they can make. As he has repeatedly seen, it can be especially tough for first-year students to figure out which area of engineering they should pursue, he says. 

“But I think that by showing students early on the ‘why’ of what they’re doing, the big real-world problems up front, it’s going to be easier for them to make a more informed choice, ideally to find and pursue their passion.”  

Dr. Frank believes this transformation will lead to passionate engineers, too. And also ones who are curious, creative, self-learning, and able to take on significant leadership roles nationally and globally. 

“The key in all of this will be maintaining that strong technical foundation that we’ve always given students while expanding the broader attributes that we think are going to be important for the leaders of tomorrow,” he says.    

Dr. Deluzio thinks that those students and this transformation will – quite literally – change the world. “The whole motivation behind this is that to get our students to tackle these wicked, grand challenges and make a lasting impact on them we need to train them differently,” he says, referring to what engineers call “wicked problems,” or problems with conflicting and poorly defined goals that seem unsolvable. “And so, my hope is that we’ll attract students who see that engineering is the best path to make that impact and the ‘what and how’ they’re taught at Queen’s places them in the best position possible to change the world.” 

The gift and name change were announced Nov. 2, the opportunity to publicly share Mr. Smith’s transformational investment and the first incredible step on a brand-new path for engineering education in Canada.

“It is hard to express the depth of our gratitude to Stephen for what he is enabling through his investment,” says Dr. Deluzio, pausing. “I am so proud to have the name of this great Canadian and role model associated with Engineering at Queen’s.”

And as for Stephen Smith, he has a few big hopes for what his gift will do. One is that it will inspire other philanthropists to give generously to Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) education. Another is that it will soon place Queen’s among those world leaders in engineering education. But perhaps his biggest hope is about the student experience and what that will mean for all of us.  

“There are a lot of complex problems facing us – climate change, productivity, health care, et cetera – and I see STEM education as being key to dealing with these issues,” he says. “Engineers are already phenomenal contributors to society, but the more that we can train them to think more holistically, to think more outside the box, the better off we’ll all be. And I think this gift will help make that happen.”

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