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Meeting New Challenges: Engineering Turns 75

The tools used by the first engineer were to be found at the end of his (her?) arms: hands for digging, levelling and carrying, and fingers for counting and scratching the head. Today engineering has become immensely more sophisticated. Engineers are specialists. Tools of awesome power and supreme precision bring about their will, and for calculation there is the computer. However, scratching the head is still best done with the fingers, and the essential nature of engineering remains the same: the application of scientific principles to practical ends.

The teaching of applied science has a long history at the University of Alberta. One of the University’s original professors was a lecturer in civil engineering (W. Muir Edwards) and the first applied science class of six members graduated in 1913 under the aegis of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. That same year the Faculty of Applied Science was established as a separate entity, and this landmark event is being commemorated this year as the Faculty of Engineering (as it was renamed in 1947) celebrates its 75th Anniversary.

As science and technology have advanced and the University has grown, the engineering faculty has kept pace. Instead of a single program, it now has more than 19 offered through five distinct departments: chemical engineering; civil engineering; electrical engineering; mechanical engineering; and mining, metallurgical and petroleum engineering.

There were more than 400 graduates in 1987 — one hundred more if masters and doctoral students (who nominally register in the Faculty of Graduate Studies and Research) are considered. In 1913 there were no women or foreign students. During the 1987-88 term the total undergraduate enrollment of 2,148 students included 201 women, and 6.8 per cent of the total were international students.

Another indication of the Faculty’s growth is the research support it now attracts: faculty members obtained $6.8 million in research funding for 1986-87, more than three times as much as was garnered only a decade earlier. Much of their work is on the leading edge in areas such as laser application, geotechnology, environmental engineering, materials, optimal control, microelectronics and telecommunications.

Bob James, now the University’s vice-president (research), is a professor of electrical engineering who came to Alberta in 1965. He says that the current character of the Faculty can be traced back to its 1973 initiatives which brought about a a new executive and administrative structure. Out of this new climate of consensus and broadly-based involvement in decision making have come the numerous innovations of subsequent years.

During this same period has come another development so pervasive it is difficult to recall how very recent it is: the advent of the computer. Before the ’70s the engineer’s prime computational tool was the slide rule. Engineering students carried (or wore) them like badges of office, and their favorite slogan when sheer exuberance (or the bottled kind) cried forth for expression — “Engineers rule the world” — had not only to do with global domination but with the instrument so much a part of their identity. In the ’70s the slide rule was replaced by the pocket calculator, and now widespread access to personal and mainframe computers — even supercomputers — provides computational tools of unprecedented power and efficiency.

The introduction of the computer has had far-reaching ramification for his profession, says Fred Otto (’57 Chemical, ’59 MSc), the U of A graduate who is now dean of the University’s Faculty of Engineering: “The scope of things we can tackle is much broader, as are the alternatives that can be looked at in the time available. The computer is a very powerful analytical tool.”

But the computer is not only an analytical tool: it is a design tool, a control tool, and a subject of study in itself. Computer technology has been integrated into almost every aspect of engineering teaching and research at the University of Alberta. While most engineering graduates have fond — or not so fond — memories of the mechanical drafting of Engineering Graphics, students now spend one third of the course behind the terminal of an IBM PC2 Model 60 learning AUTOCAD.

Recognizing the extensive use of digital computers in the design, construction and operation of everything from boilers to oil refineries, the department of chemical engineering has placed a strong emphasis on computer applications. A major thrust is the use of real-time, sensor-based computers for on-line control and management of operating plants. In the department of mechanical engineering a new field of emphasis is the integration of computers in industrial applications for computer-aided design (CAD) and computer-aided manufacturing (CAM). Computer simulation and modelling of everything from gas outbursts and petroleum recovery systems to bucketwheel excavators and mineral process unit operations has become routine in the department of mining, metallurgical and petroleum engineering. Computer modelling is also an important design tool in the department of civil engineering. Its transport group, for example, is involved in the computer modelling of travellers’ choices in urban transportation. It also works with advanced computer systems for traffic control.

The electrical engineering department not only makes extensive use of the computer at all levels of its teaching program and in its research, but about seven years ago it introduced a new program granting the Bachelor of Science degree in computer engineering. The program, offered in co-operation with the Faculty of Science’s department of computer science, is a modification of the electrical engineering program in which some topics in that program’s core were dropped and computing sciences courses added.

An offshoot of the electrical engineer’s interest in computer technology is the Alberta Microelectronic Centre, which helps companies identify and adapt microelectronic applications to their products and operations. Joint research with industry on projects which have commercial market potential is an integral part of its services. An important adjunct to this is the special arrangement negotiated between the Alberta government and LSI Logic Corporation, a leading California microelectronics company, which give AMC access to LSI’s sophisticated technology for designing and fabricating microchips.

The Alberta Microelectronic Centre is one of three non-profit corporations established at the U of A under Dr. James’s leadership when he was chairman of the electrical engineering department. They derive from his belief that “you shouldn’t undersell the amount of research going on in industry.” Confident that the strong innovative abilities of his staff could be brought to bear more effectively on the real world problems of industry through the synergism created by actively involving industry, Dr. James and others worked long and hard to establish the institutes. In addition to the AMC they are the Alberta Laser Institute, the first industrially-oriented laser institute in the world, and the Alberta Telecommunications Research Centre, which fosters advanced research in telecommunications systems, theory and technology.

A similar, more recent institute is the Alberta Centre for Machine Intelligence and Robotics, a cross-faculty endeavor involving the Faculties of Science and Medicine as well as Engineering. Interested in diversifying the provincial economy, the Alberta government has given the centres major support and collectively the centres contribute greatly to an electronics infrastructure in Alberta which Dr. James describes as “second to none.”

The U of A campus is also home to the Centre for Frontier Engineering Research. Funded by the Devonian Group of Charitable Foundations, the Governments of Alberta and Canada, the University and more than 25 private firms, C-FER undertakes collaborative research to enhance safe economic development of Canada’s frontier petroleum resources.

The various engineering research institutes are now an important factor not only in the Faculty’s program of research, but are also integral to its teaching, particularly at the graduate level. In addition to supporting faculty research through contracts and funded positions, the centres offer scholarships and give students access to their research facilities.

Dean Otto points to another way in which his faculty, and its students in particular, are coming into closer contact with industry: the co-operative education program, introduced eight years ago and highly thought of by all involved. In the past year about 500 students took part in the program, which allows students to alternate periods of study with periods of paid, discipline-related work experience in co-operating employer organizations. Entailing a total of 20 months of work experience, it normally requires five years for completion. First introduced in mechanical engineering, it is now available in all engineering disciplines.

The dean explains why the program is so popular: “The students like it because, as well as giving them practical experience, it gives them an opportunity to clarify their career goals a little earlier. It also helps finance their education, and probably enhances their opportunity to find permanent employment. It’s also well thought of by industry — it gives them an opportunity to look at our students and determine their appropriateness for their positions.” In addition, the work experience tends to increase the students’ motivation, he says.

A legacy of the co-op program is the Engineering Faculty Advisory Board. This board, to which the Faculty can turn for advice about such things as new program development, grew out of the advisory body originally established to help develop the co-op program.

For the past few years, the engineering faculty has also been nurturing a relationship across campus with the Faculty of Business. The dean says that both his faculty and the business faculty are attempting to put into place more expertise for the teaching of the management of technology — and not only to students in the respective faculties but to other interested individuals. “This becomes important when you are talking about the diversification of economy in the Province and the introduction of high technology. We are competing in an international environment, and we need to know how to do it.”

As the engineering faculty enters its fourth quarter century, a number of other developments are on the horizon: expansion of the recently-introduced program in construction engineering; initiatives (likely including a research centre) in the engineering of advanced materials for specific industrial needs, and the Faculty’s first-ever major undertaking in fund raising are some that the dean mentions. He has just recently visited Bangladesh in connection with another: a linkage agreement with Bangladesh’s premier engineering school, to help that developing nation improve education in areas such as energy and water resources.

All is not change, however. After all, though many of the applications may be new, the scientific principles upon which engineering is based have not changed. And the Faculty doesn’t change just for the sake of change: in January 1916 it was agreed that Faculty Council should meet in the afternoon of the second Monday of each month and Faculty Council still meets on the second Monday of each month.

And engineering students (even sans slide rule) are still engineering students. They plot against the Aggies and court the attention of the nurses. They choose their queen, wake up campus during Engineering Week and build their ice statues in the Quad. They also work hard.

“The engineering curriculum is a very full curriculum,” says Dr. Otto. “It’s a real challenge to try and give the students a reasonable background in all that’s expected of them these days. They’re supposed to be able to communicate… to be aware of the impact of technology on society… to have a good technical background… to know some management principles so they understand the importance of marketing… “Add it all up, and it’s a lot to ask in four years of study.”

Published Summer 1988.

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