Nov. 10, 2017

NSERC co-chairs aim to transform engineering education at UCalgary

Bob Brennan, Simon Li work to increase experiential learning and collaborative teamwork in Schulich courses
Bob Brennan, left, and Simon Li
Bob Brennan, left, and Simon Li

A plan to transform how we teach engineers has earned two professors at the Schulich School of Engineering a new Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) research chair. As joint Chairs in Design Engineering, Bob Brennan and Simon Li, PhDs, will help broaden the scope of engineering education at the University of Calgary through innovative new approaches that blend technical training with hands-on experiences.

“Research has shown that learning can be deeper, richer and more rewarding if it is enhanced by experiences that go beyond the textbook or lecture hall," said Brennan, who is also department head for mechanical engineering. "By having our students actively engaging in engineering through real-life design challenges, we are helping create solid foundation of understanding for future engineers.” 

Dedicated to experiential learning

Brennan and Li are dedicated to increasing the amount of experiential learning and collaborative teamwork in courses throughout Schulich. Currently, all engineering students take design courses in their first and fourth years — including a final year project where they design, build and showcase their own work. By growing the amount of design-based studies, students can gain more problem-solving experience and become accustomed to constantly applying their technical skills to a real-world environment.

“Our focus is on bridging that gap so students learn these kinds of design and project management skills bit by bit throughout the curriculum,” says Li, assistant professor of mechanical and manufacturing engineering. “So when they start to work with future employers, they’ll have more confidence to tackle the project.”

Lab allows for design-based experience

As part of their mandate, the joint chairs will oversee the development of a new interdisciplinary, instrumentation systems measurement lab, sponsored by Spartan Controls Ltd, a leading provider of automation solutions, valves, measurement and process controls for industry in Western Canada. Brennan says the lab will allow for a more open-ended, design-based experience, and not just for students focusing on the energy industry.

“Investing in the future experts of the industry through support of education is a core principal at Spartan,” says Grant Wilde, president and CEO of Spartan Controls. “In partnership with Emerson and other principals, substantial investments have been made to provide students in post-secondary institutions with the most comprehensive suites of technology.”

“We think that’s going to be a real contribution to, hopefully, many of our programs because instrumentation systems cross almost all of the disciplines,” says Brennan.

"There's strength in numbers," says Brennan. "We're not just doing this by ourselves. We’re working with researchers from Dalhousie to University of Victoria."

University of Calgary to play leading role

Through Brennan and Li's work at the Schulich School of Engineering, the University of Calgary will play a leading role in realizing NSERC's vision for innovative, experience-based engineering education in Canada.

“At NSERC, we value the importance of investing in training and preparing the next generation of engineers in Canada for their future jobs,” says Bettina Hamelin, vice-president of research partnerships, NSERC. “This Chair will allow students to gain the skills needed to design and develop cutting-edge products and technologies — helping universities increase their capacity in all aspects of design engineering and giving students practical experience before entering the workforce.”

The Schulich School of Engineering is focused on supporting student success as our graduates launch careers where they can make a difference.

“Adopting research-informed approaches to enhance student experiences both inside and outside of the classroom is another example of how we are ensuring our students get the best engineering education possible,” said Bill Rosehart, cean of the Schulich School of Engineering.