Undergraduate education and research: a vital force in our Faculty

Fall 2009

Akeel Ali (right) explains his summer research project to Fred Mabki at the end-of-session S•U•R•E poster exhibit that was held in the Lorne M. Trottier Building.

Akeel Ali (right) explains his summer research project to Fred Mabki at the end-of-session S•U•R•E poster exhibit that was held in the Lorne M. Trottier Building.

Undergraduate education is experiencing a renaissance at McGill Engineering. Enrolment has increased 20 per cent during the past five years; entering students’ grade point averages are up considerably; several new teaching and research programs have been introduced and 50 additional scholarships have been created as part of a major effort to increase student support.

Renovations have also been made to undergraduate design laboratories in Chemical and Mechanical Engineering, work is underway in Civil Engineering on integrated teaching and research environmental engineering laboratories, and there is improved study space in both the McConnell Engineering and M. H. Wong buildings.

Of the 2,630 undergrads enrolled this fall, 23 per cent are women, 16 per cent are francophone and 26 per cent come from abroad. In fact, there has been a remarkable 45 per cent increase in overseas admissions since 2004. New programs lie at the heart of the renewal in undergraduate education, including minors in biomedical engineering and mining engineering, a first-year introduction to engineering course and a pilot program with the Faculty of Law and the Desautels Faculty of Management that offers an integrated senior year capstone design project.

General Engineering program launched in September

Undergrad SURE poster display participants D’André Wilson (above right), Benjamin Bloom (below) and Akeel Ali (far right) shared their summer research experiences with other McGill students like Okimi Peters (above left) at McGill Engineering’s end-of-session poster exhibition in the Lorne M. Trottier Building.

S•U•R•E participant D’André Wilson (right) discusses the finer points of her work with McGill student Okimi Peters.

In addition, McGill Engineering is now one of a small group of North American engineering schools that offer entering students two options: they can either choose a major at admission, as was the case previously, or follow a new, U0 general engineering program that allows them to wait until the end of their first year before selecting a specialization.

The program gives the 32 students enrolled this year an opportunity to explore different engineering majors and learn more about the academic and professional opportunities associated with each discipline. The program includes career development workshops and information sessions that explain undergraduate research opportunities.

Summer Undergraduate Research in Engineering: A S•U•R•E Thing

One of the most creative new initiatives for undergraduates in our Faculty is a program to expose young minds to research opportunities in academia long before they would normally have the chance.

Launched in May and coordinated by the McGill Engineering Student Centre (MESC), the S•U•R•E (Summer Undergraduate Research in Engineering) program is a companion to internships in industry, enabling undergraduate students to learn more about their discipline through summer internships in McGill laboratories and research institutes.

“We are, after all, a research-intensive university, but our undergraduate students don’t always see that,” says Andrew Kirk, Associate Dean, Research and Graduate Education. “Most have little notion of what goes on outside of the classroom.”

“We want S•U•R•E to get students excited about their programs and to connect them with the questions their professors are working on. In the same way industry internships show students how companies function and what expectations exist in that world,” Kirk says “the S•U•R•E program shows students how university research works.”

Participants develop insights into research techniques, gaining an overview of the breadth of research taking place across the Faculty and learning about funding opportunities and how to apply for grants. They also get a taste of how exciting master’s and doctoral work can be. In that sense, the SURE program is a valuable tool for graduate recruitment at the Faculty.

Benjamin Bloom is one of 116 undergrads who took advantage of the chance to rub shoulders with top Faculty of Engineering researchers.

Participants develop insights into research techniques, gaining an overview of the breadth of research taking place across the Faculty and learning about funding opportunities and how to apply for grants. They also get a taste of how exciting master’s and doctoral work can be. In that sense, the S•U•R•E program is a valuable tool for graduate recruitment at the Faculty.

Diverse range of projects

For 16 weeks during the summer, 70 professors welcomed 116 engineering, architecture and urban planning undergraduates as members of their research teams.

Each student earned $5,625 for investigating areas as diverse as bioremediation of waste petroleum, aircraft de-icing and the transformation of bedrooms during the 20th century.

Forty-five of the students received funding from a related NSERC (Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council) program called Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowships. The other students were supported by monies from the Faculty of Engineering, the Office of the McGill Provost and each professor’s individual grant.

The NSERC funding is available to Canadian students only, although the S•U•R•E program is open to all, regardless of nationality.

Like scholarships, Kirk says that S•U•R•E internships are a major plus on a student’s CV, either when job hunting or applying for graduate school. The supervising professor gets to know the student better through the internship and her/his written assessment or recommendation on a CV can add considerable weight when decisions are made by future employers or graduate school admissions officers.

Dazzling poster display

dpdIn fact, S•U•R•E provides a number of collateral benefits. Having research experience on a CV also improves students’ chances of winning fellowships if they do go on to graduate school — as does being named a co-author on a published paper, which may be the case with several of this year’s S•U•R•E participants.

In Professor Zetian Mi’s nanoelectronics laboratory, for instance, students Adrian Pierre and Andy Shih built and tested a memristor, the elusive “fourth circuit” long hypothesized but never fabricated until HP Labs managed the trick last year. (changed punctuation here) Today, first-year undergrad Shih is co-author on a paper already submitted to a leading journal.

Depth of research

“Acquiring this kind of experience really gives potential grad students a head start,” says Kirk.
S•U•R•E also has the happy side effects of increasing McGill Engineering’s research capacity by bringing more people into its laboratories over the summer, and giving graduate students the experience of supervising and training their novice compatriots.

One of the highlights of the S•U•R•E program this year was a poster display held August 12th on the mezzanine of the Lorne M. Trottier Building. More than 100 undergraduate researchers documented their summer activities, highlighting the range and depth of research underway at the Faculty.

A panel of graduate students awarded “top poster” recognition to Jonathan Verrett, a chemical engineering undergraduate. He was working on biological hydrogen production research in Professor Viviane Yargeau’s laboratory, under the supervision of graduate student Rujira Jitrwung.

To see his poster, as well as others presented last August, visit the S•U•R•E web site at www.mcgill.ca/engineering/sure.

The Faculty of Engineering is currently seeking funding to make the S•U•R•E program a permanent fixture in academic life of our undergraduate students.

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