Post-secondary institutions introducing new programs and approaches in a rapidly changing world

From their first year onward, UBC engineering students learn how to design and build products, and how to work effectively as members of an engineering team. supplied

From their first year onward, UBC engineering students learn how to design and build products, and how to work effectively as members of an engineering team. supplied

Canada’s post-secondary institutions are continually challenged to keep pace with shifting economic forces, technology advances and new labour market requirements. As the speed of change accelerates, universities and colleges are working to become all the more agile in program transformation to ensure they continue to meet the needs of their learners and their communities.

It’s a new vision of a university’s role – instead of seeing a degree as another step in a person’s education, we see it as the first step in their career.
— Carol Jaeger is associate dean, academic, Faculty of Applied Science, University of British Columbia

The University of British Columbia (UBC) Faculty of Applied Science has adapted many aspects of its engineering programs to reflect the expanding and more diverse role of engineers in our technology-dominated society. For example, the faculty is currently planning new programming to respond to areas of economic growth in B.C.: biomedical engineering (in partnership with the UBC Faculty of Medicine); software and computational engineering (with UBC’s Faculty of Science); and clean tech and environmental engineering, and integrated engineering (with the University of Northern British Columbia).

In January 2016, UBC also added eight new master’s degrees, founded in engineering leadership and in healthcare leadership and policy.

At the same time, the faculty is changing the way it educates future engineers, with the goal of building a broader range of skills beyond the technical foundations.

Increasingly, engineers must be equipped to not only solve society’s big challenges, but to lead in those areas, says Elizabeth Croft, the faculty’s associate dean, education & professional development. “Developing skills in such areas as leadership, innovation and entrepreneurship is critical for student success and for the economic success of our country,” she says.

Students also need to “learn how to learn,” given that today’s technology will be rapidly overtaken and the fact that the current generation of engineers can expect to change jobs and job functions many times in their careers, Croft adds.

Traditionally, first-year engineering students focused on foundational courses such as math, physics, mechanics and materials, and had to wait until later years to start actual “engineering.”   
The technical foundations remain critical, says Carol Jaeger, associate dean, academic, but the faculty has also made changes to impart career-focused skills from the outset.

“Our goal is to provide educational experiences that are enriched, so the students have the opportunity to practise and scaffold their skills starting in year one,” says Jaeger. “It’s a new vision of a university’s role – instead of seeing a degree as another step in a person’s education, we see it as the first step in their career.”

The faculty has added a year-long experience whereby first-year students work in teams on a series of design-and-build projects covering a range of disciplines, such as robotics, computer engineering and sustainability applications. The plunge into engineering begins immediately, Jaeger says. “Now, in the first three weeks, they will design and build a product and present it to their peers, and then repeat the cycle throughout the year. On top of the technical knowledge, they’re learning about professionalism, ethics, communication and teamwork.”

In first year or later, students are supported to create their own teams to take part in engineering competitions. “Through the student teams, they self-organize and, in a sense, form small companies that develop and build a product,” says Croft. “Not only do they do very well in competitions, but often this is the springboard to a future enterprise.

“One student founded a company based on drone technology, which began with a student competition. We have another who created a company with technology that monitors and signals to caregivers when children with autistic spectrum disorder are experiencing stress – something they often can’t communicate verbally.”  

Post-secondary institutions in Alberta are also adapting to labour market and economic changes, stemming in part from the 2014 fall in oil prices and the Fort McMurray fires earlier in 2016.
While many recent economic forecasts see renewed growth for the province in the near future, the disruptions appear to be fuelling dramatic enrolment surges at colleges and institutes.

Two factors are driving the enrolment increases, says Joel Ward, president and CEO of Red Deer College (RDC) and a former board member of Colleges and Institutes Canada. “Because of layoffs and high employment, many people have returned to school for reskilling and retraining, often in new fields.”  

Another factor is the province’s move to increase funding for college programs, he says. “It enabled us and all the colleges to launch new programs, which also filled almost immediately and contributed to growth in our system in Alberta.”

At RDC, the largest of the province’s 11 colleges, the strongest enrolment growth has been in business programs and in university transfer programs – where degrees are offered in collaboration with university partners, says Ward.  

New programs include media studies, digital communications, engineering technology, health technologies, practical nursing and health-care aids. “We see huge increases in demand for people educated in these areas and good employment opportunities when students graduate,” says Ward, who adds that around 90 per cent of RDC graduates find jobs within six months.

Red Deer College also wants to intensify its economic contributions through applied research. “We specialize in advanced manufacturing in Red Deer in areas such as rapid prototyping and 3D modelling and printing.

“We are very connected to local and regional businesses. Our research facilities help smaller companies, which don’t have the millions of dollars in technology we have, to develop their innovations and achieve success. We believe that one of our key roles as a college is to accelerate economic growth.”

With respect to change, RDC has asked the provincial government to approve its transformation into a “polytechnic university” – essentially a hybrid of a university and a college that would offer all existing programs plus some four-year degrees.

Polytechnic universities are popular in Europe and Asia but rare in Canada (just one currently in B.C.), Ward explains. Grand Prairie Regional College is also seeking the new designation.
“Because we offer university transfer credits but not full degrees, people often leave the community to complete university degrees in the bigger cities and don’t return.

“We believe it’s a social justice issue. If you want to ensure you can build communities in smaller urban centres like Red Deer and Grand Prairie, the best way is to create educational institutions that can offer a comprehensive mix of programs.” 

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