A sense of urgency or agency?

Editor's Note

This article is sponsored by The University of Ottawa Faculty of Engineering

These days I’m constantly driven by a deep sense of urgency. The pace of change in the world is now far outstripping our ability to maintain the university education we provide to our students at a level that will be a sufficient foundation for their entire careers. Many of the students we are now recruiting are going to hit the high point of their career in around 2050, a year which for me is beyond the critical point of so many deep challenges we now face as a society.

A colleague once told me that I should worry a bit less about what I perceive as a critical moment in time since universities have been around for centuries – they’ve weathered all kinds of deep crises and will get through the current uncertainties. However, if there’s an important lesson in engineering, it’s that sitting back, and hoping for the best is never an option.

The discussions around the closing of the COP26 summit really highlighted the importance of taking direct and significant action. More than ever, together with our graduates we are given the ambitious task of “fixing” the planet, COVID-19 continues to cast a shadow on the global economy, our problems are getting bigger which can sometimes seem intimidating, even overwhelming.  This was brought to vivid light for me by a parent last summer when she told me that her teenage son would either become an engineer or would just spend his life playing video games because he felt that there was nothing he could do about the future we face collectively. That really hit home for me and one of my drivers is now to ensure that we give back to our students a real sense of agency.

The incredible disruption that the pandemic has caused to engineering education since 2020 has mostly led to adaptive measures to keep our universities open, but it has also provided outstanding advancements in the way we now teach, deeply embedded in the best education practices that have been researched and identified over the past several decades. We are now working intensely to preserve as many of these best practices as possible while the public health measures continue to evolve with the impacts of COVID-19. We’re doing our best not to simply fall back on the old ways, but rather make some of these new approaches sustainable, and to continuously improve them.

We’ve been going back to the labs with our students, back to in-person contacts to provide them with the best teaching experience, but we’ve also learned a few things about using digital multimedia teaching tools in the lecture environment to improve learning.

We’re rapidly expanding our experiential learning approaches and providing our students with a multidisciplinary environment for their projects. Increasingly, more Engineering faculties are also integrating the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals and the Canadian Engineering Grand Challenges into our programs because these provide some of the best roadmaps we have at our disposal right now to address these terribly complex challenges. And we’re embedding all these best practices within a lifelong learning approach. We absolutely have to, because while we’re implementing a host of better practices, providing better experiences and better tools to improve the learning experience of our students, the world is still evolving much too quickly for us to ever go back to thinking that a university education is sufficient to prepare our graduates for an entire career. What it can do is to prepare them to launch their careers, and then we have to continue working together, in partnership with industry, government and community organizations, so that all our graduates can continue to have an impact up to 2050 and beyond.

Although it helps to see the major changes that are happening every day, it does not abate in any way the sense of urgency that continues to drive me to do better. Through the active engagement of our partners and thoughtful research, we will continue to be faithful stewards of our planet and its people and serve as catalysts for change.

Dr. Jacques Beauvais: Jacques Beauvais is the dean of the Faculty of Engineering at uOttawa. An alumni from uOttawa, he obtained his Ph.D. (Physics) from Université Laval (1990). Prior to joining the Faculty, he was a professor of electrical engineering at Université de Sherbrooke (1993-2017) where he also served as vice-president, research, innovation and entrepreneurship (2007-2017).