New technologies promise to disrupt the field of engineering, from smart cities, autonomous vehicles and cryptocurrencies to advanced manufacturing systems, and educators must stay ahead of the curve, says Dr. Amir Asif, founding dean of the newly renamed Gina Cody School of Engineering and Computer Science at Concordia University in Montreal.
Concordia is focused on producing a new breed of engineers who can develop and implement these next-generation processes, practices and products, Dr. Asif says, as well as analyzing their impact on society.
“Engineers are an integral part of disruptive technologies,” he says, noting that the school has a new commitment to inclusivity and diversity and is making key investments in curriculum innovation, faculty recruitment and research capacity to train highly qualified personnel.
Concordia is the first university in Canada with an engineering school named after a woman, Gina Cody, who was the first woman ever awarded a PhD in building engineering there, in 1989. Dr. Cody has gifted Concordia $15-million, the largest personal donation in the university’s history, for programs largely focused on disruptive technologies.
Dr. Asif, a professor of electrical and computer engineering who currently serves as chair of the research committee of the Canadian National Council of Deans of Engineering and Applied Sciences, says that a key part of the Gina Cody School’s vision includes identifying and focusing on particular technologies aligned with societal and industrial needs.
For example, Concordia is one of only nine Canadian institutions to advance in the competition of the Canada Excellence Research Chair program (CERC), the most prestigious and generous academic awards available in the world. The focus of the CERC is smart, sustainable and resilient cities and communities. The school has led research in optimized net-zero-energy buildings design and operation in its Building, Civil and Environmental Engineering Department. It conducts cutting-edge research in the fields of aerospace engineering, advanced manufacturing and advanced materials in its Department of Mechanical, Industrial and Aerospace Engineering, as well as in the area of cybersecurity and blockchain technology, for instance with major investments in research on smart-grid power systems.
“Security in this area is extremely important, and we are world leaders in it,” says Dr. Mourad Debbabi, associate dean of research and graduate studies, who holds the NSERC/Hydro Quebec Thales Industrial Research Chair in Smart Grid Security.
He says a strength of the school is that it encourages engineers from a range of disciplines to work together, which is critical with the convergence of information technologies and operational technologies.
“Everything is getting connected – from smart homes to self-driving cars,” says Dr. Debbabi, a professor of information systems engineering, noting that interdisciplinarity is at the core of the Concordia Institute of Information Systems Engineering. “We need to train engineers who are capable of managing all of these systems.”
Other areas of focus are big data, artificial intelligence and machine learning, where Concordia is part of the Canada Innovation Superclusters Initiative, as well as the Internet of Things and advanced networking, focused on connectivity between physical and virtual devices, within the Department of Computer Science and Software Engineering.
Dr. Asif says that with the expansion of such areas, the school’s enrolment has risen by about 60 per cent in the last five years. It has more than 5,500 undergraduate and 4,500 graduate students today. The faculty complement has grown by a similar proportion, with almost 240 full-time tenure or tenure-track faculty who foster a “student-centric environment” that cultivates critical intellect and experiential education.
The school has risen up the university rankings; it advanced six spots to 10th place among Canada’s engineering schools in the Maclean’s 2018 survey. Computer science advanced three spots to 11th position. For the first time ever, Concordia earned a place in the prestigious Times Higher Education 2018 World University Rankings, with its engineering and computer science among the global top 300.
Staying ahead of the curve means thinking ahead, Dr. Asif says, with an advisory board that works in collaboration with industry and government to invest in technologies “that will make a difference.” It also means building research capacity and infrastructure, hiring and retaining leading faculty and “setting up a culture of research excellence and innovation in learning and education. You have to strive to be the best.”
Dr. Debbabi says that Concordia has “a lot of agility” and adapts quickly to new initiatives. A specialized program on cyber security that he proposed about a decade ago today has more than 60 full-time researchers and 150-plus students focused on the leading-edge field. “If you put forward a credible idea, you will find support,” he says.
Dr. Asif says the new Department of Chemical and Materials Engineering, created in May 2017, already has top faculty and students doing research in areas such as advanced manufacturing and clean energy, “in state-of-the-art facilities that we continue to develop.”
He says the school’s courses have become more “project-oriented,” with an increased emphasis on undergraduate research. Students “get their hands dirty” in classes, as well as doing co-curricular activities and placements in industry, for example in Montreal’s thriving aerospace hub. They also have opportunities to gain international experience.
“Engineers have to be entrepreneurs themselves,” he says, with students learning about areas from intellectual property rights and patent law to public policy.
It’s important to ensure that disruptive technologies are developed and implemented in a socially responsible way, Dr. Asif notes. Concordia is unique in Canada with its Centre for Engineering in Society within the Gina Cody School, where engineers look at the implications of next-gen products and services on society.
“These are the people who will turn products of imagination into real-world innovation for the benefit of humanity,” he adds. “I think we’re in safe hands.”
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