Workshop gives vision to the renaissance engineer

poster for Enivisioning The Renaissance Engineer

Breadth, creativity, technical and analytical prowess are just some of the attributes needed by engineers of the future.

That was the consensus of leading thinkers, academics, engineers and students who gathered at York’s Keele campus on April 21 for “Envisioning the Renaissance Engineer”, a day-long workshop to outline the academic promise for the University’s expanded School of Engineering.

“This shall be a school of unique and new design,” said Janusz Kozinski, dean of York’s Faculty of Science & Engineering Janusz Kozinskiand host of the workshop. “Once completed,” he said, “the School of Engineering will have an enormous impact on the field of engineering in Canada and beyond.

Janusz Kozinski

“How do we see engineering in the future?” said York’s President & Vice-Chancellor Mamdouh Shoukri, in his welcoming remarks. “Our vision is the creation of problem solvers who are broadly educated and socially responsible. We want to build a faculty that is inclusive in every respect.”

Underpinning this vision for the School of Engineering will be academic partnerships with Osgoode Hall Law School and the Schulich School of Business and York’s other faculties.

For philanthropist Pierre Lassonde, chair of the Franco Nevada Corporation, whose generous donation of $25 million to York University has made possible the expansion of the engineering school, attending the event one day after celebrating his birthday, along with the anticipated discussion of the concept of the renaissance engineer, were gifts worthy of 65 candles.

In his welcome to the workshop participants, Lassonde described his vision for the engineer of the future. The renaissance engineer, he said, must be like Michelangelo, the Italian Renaissance sculptor, painter, architect, poet and engineer. Renaissance engineers would be able to create their own masterpieces, dream and design innovative technical solutions to problems, be entrepreneurial in business and understand the romance of lifelong learning.

Pierre LassondePierre Lassonde

“It is a momentous time. I find myself looking forward and backward,” he said. “Our engineers, our graduates must be fully equipped, fully ready for any situation they encounter. Builders, creative people, developers of solutions – they must not be harnessed by the stiffness of earlier generations. In the future, new approaches, new fixes, flexible men and women are what will be required.”

The workshop began with a keynote address by Diane Freeman, an engineering consultant, Waterloo city councillor and the past president of the Professional Engineers of Ontario. The day continued with morning and afternoon discussions. Technical presentations on entrepreneurship and project-based learning rounded out the day.

Diane FreemanDiane Freeman

“The word ‘renaissance’ speaks of revival and of rebirth,” Freeman said. “Aptly, it refers to seasons of transition and to change makers. This is what engineers are, not just automobile designers.”

She spoke about the need for creative solutions by engineers to solve deeply rooted problems. Freeman called for engineers to become involved in public policy and stressed the need for collaboration between engineers, citizens and public policy makers.

Highlights of the day’s panel discussions

poster for Enivisioning The Renaissance EngineerThe Future Engineers Session that followed featured Marisa Sterling of the Professional Engineers of Ontario; Tom Lee, chief education officer, Quanser Inc.; and Sal Alajeck, global engineering team lead, Engineers Without Borders.

Sterling said three characteristics should be encouraged in the engineers of the future – flexibility, strategic thinking and entrepreneurial spirit. “Engineers would need to continually evolve, adopt a strategic mindset and look for future gaps, opportunities and cycles.”

In addition to current trends in engineering, Freeman highlighted that there would be a need for new kinds of engineers in areas such as seismic engineering and entrepreneurial engineering.

Lee said that future engineers should be equipped to handle global challenges and issues such as climate change and renewable energy. He noted that elementary students are making robots and engineering fundamentals are now being taught in some Ontario high schools, something he said was not being recognized by universities.

Alajeck suggested engineering programs consider the big picture, including teaching engineers to be better communicators and offering interdisciplinary studies in creative problem solving and system thinking. “Can they be a loving engineer with the ability to transcend relationships and build communities? Can they change the givens? Would the approach to the renaissance engineer be additive or holistic?” asked Alajeck. “Can York University’s School of Engineering challenge the existing framework of engineering education or go against the will of industry?”

From left, Sal Alajeck, Tom Lee and Marisa SterlingFrom left, Sal Alajeck, Tom Lee and Marisa Sterling

The afternoon Renaissance Engineer Session featured York natural science Professors Richard Jarrell and Edward Jones-Imhotep speaking about trends that they think would affect the renaissance engineer.

Jarrell said he was worried about the text and e-mail heavy world of non-present communications, which he called socially bleak.

“We need to be citizens first. Citizens have adaptability and are present in the world. They are taught to move about and seek a broader education,” he said.”Flexibility, adaptability and broad-based education are important. There is a need to be nimble and move into a variety of careers because the broader the education, the more useful the engineer, and the better the citizen, the better the communicator and the more visionary the human being.”

“Renaissance has an element of rebirth, but also of recovering what has been lost,” said Jones-Imhotep. He cited Galileo Galilei and other renaissance scientists of the 1600s. Many, he noted, were in essence “renaissance engineers”. They were also musicians and they actively explored and embraced other domains, including art, music and languages.

Following the discussion, engineering Professor John Orr of Worcester Polytechnic Institute, in Worcester, Mass., explored project-based learning.

Orr’s presentation was followed by a panel discussion featuring Troy d’Ambrosio, director of the Troy d'AmbrosioLassonde Entrepreneur Center at the University of Utah, and Gabriel Chan of the peer-to-peer learning platform NoteWagon.

Troy d’Ambrosio

They discussed how entrepreneurial engineers develop solutions to everyday problems. Both d’Ambrosio and Chan highlighted the importance of universities in encouraging and incubating business and engineering start ups. They highlighted that business planning is a fundamental and integral skill for renaissance engineers. d’Ambrosio described the experience of the University of Utah and its engineering school’s effort to marry business with engineering, which resulted in creation of the Lassonde Entrepreneur Center at the University of Utah.

The day ended with a thoughtful observation from Lassonde. “Aspire to inspire, before you expire.”

For more information, visit the York University School of Engineering website.

By Jenny Pitt-Clark, YFile editor