Interview with Dr. Pearl Sullivan, Dean of Engineering

Dean Pearl Dean Pearl
Dean Pearl

Overseeing a faculty and administrative staff of more than 500, nearly 7,000 undergrads and almost 2,000 post graduates, Dr. Pearl Sullivan is the University of Waterloo's Dean of Engineering. Dr. Sullivan recently sat down with Watch Magazine to discuss her hopes and ambitions for her students and the profession; the expanding and changing field of engineering study; and why integrity and humility are two of the most important qualities an engineer can embody.

Question 1

As the Dean of Engineering at the University of Waterloo, you oversee the education of the engineers of the future. What do you foresee for tomorrow's engineers? Are there trends, areas of emphasis you find personally very exciting?

Dr. Sullivan: As a university our mission is to educate. And for me that educational process breaks down into three basic elements, regardless of the program. You need to first understand what matters to your faculty, your students and your program. Then, your main task is to balance the dynamics involving all three that would best achieve learning. Learning is almost always associated with students, but faculty members also learn — we call that research.

For the engineering program, there is also the additional aspect of the evolving profession. And that pace of change is astonishing. Engineering is about designing solutions to technical problems but the problems our graduates will be addressing are not static. These problems are becoming more complex and sometimes will just have been recently created. So, the question then is: Are we preparing our graduates for this new environment? It becomes clear that this is a substantive change in the profession that will trigger change in the way we educate the engineers of tomorrow. That change is impacting our faculty and the way they teach; the way our students learn, and, of course, our curriculum.

Today, our professors are expected to teach 40 per cent of the time. Another 40 per cent of their time is devoted to research — they are very research motivated because creating new knowledge is stimulating. As their fields expand, professors continually add to their courses. But there are only so many hours in the day and only so much content a student can absorb.

Dean Pearl

What we don't want to do is throw so much content at our students that there isn't enough opportunity for them to learn deeply and that they end up skimming it. This is not a trivial matter since our society depends on engineers to build our medical equipment, our bridges, our automobiles, and our aircraft. Classroom learning can't go away — we still need to teach engineering principles in a structured setting — but that alone cannot fully engage our students today. It is natural that our faculty members will deliver content in the way they were taught, and they traditionally have not been asked to collaborate with their colleagues in teaching.

Back when I went to engineering school, I was 100 per cent reliant on textbooks. I had to focus on learning the material in front of me. But students today have access to a vast amount of information and you wonder if they are able to pick out the critical pieces. We are being asked to teach how to problem solve in real settings to a generation who is inherently attuned with the digital world, but not necessarily with the physical world. The future will require them to be able to connect theory with the physical world, and more importantly, to have the depth of knowledge to ask the right questions when faced with a complex problem. That makes a good engineer.

Finally, the curriculum needs to shift to support a more contextual method of learning. We must decide what is the most important content that needs to be taught and then provide our students with the theoretical foundation to excel, and give them the physical context in which to apply that theory. Let me give you an example. Within our Mechatronics Engineering program, the then-Director of the program together with two other professors piloted a first-year project. Students were asked to design and build fuel cells from scratch. The goal was to use the fuel cell to propel a "vehicle" past the finish line. In addition, they had to write a computer code to maneuver the vehicle. Of course, the entire class enjoyed a good laugh when some of the vehicles stalled before they could reach the finish line. But together as a group, they analyzed the causes of failure.

This project proved to be highly memorable, because it engaged the students in a competitive yet collaborative setting, and provided them with the physical context of scale, design, assembly and critical analysis of function and failure. In a single activity, they integrated scientific concepts from their chemistry course with design and computing topics that were taught in the classroom to solve an open-ended problem. The experience of the failed fuel cells was deeply retained — there was marked improvement in the first year exam performance. We should commend all three professors for undertaking this important initiative.

This contextual implementation can only happen if we motivate all three of the elements involved in learning. Faculty must be willing to work with other professors to collaborate and add context. Students love context — it forces them to be curious and investigative, so we need to provide them with more opportunities to ground theory and mathematical equations in a real and tangible way. The curriculum must allow for more contextual learning.

Question 2

You are the University of Waterloo's first female Dean of Engineering. Yet engineering continues to be a male dominated field of study and profession. As a woman in the industry, what perspective do you bring to this issue, and how can we set about creating more balance, and more opportunities for women?

Dr. Sullivan: I have to admit I don't spend too much of my day thinking about the fact I am a woman. The cause for education is much larger. Yet, when you speak to the outside world, gender imbalance is a major issue as the high technology talent pool is expanding quickly.

And what is engineering but a creative process that will help and enrich lives? There is a huge societal impact to what we do as a profession. Now think about a design group of only men responsible for designing a biomedical device or a building. If women do not have an opportunity to participate in that process, this presents, in my view, a missed opportunity to meet the needs of our entire society.

Our Associate Dean of Outreach, Professor Mary Wells, is doing an outstanding job of promoting science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), and oversees the Engineering Science Quest (ESQ) program. We need to create an environment where both young boys and girls view engineering as an opportunity to turn ideas into reality.They need to see that having a technical education opens doors and provides them with opportunities in their careers, and for women in particular, a pathway to financial independence.

Question 6

WATCH: What words of wisdom do you have for your students as they embark upon their engineering career?

Dr. Sullivan: When I address our graduates at convocation, I tell them this: "You have worked very hard to come to Waterloo. You have worked even harder to get out of Waterloo. You have proven your intelligence, your work ethic and your abilities. But what you need to remember is that you have to carry on with two main things in the back of your mind. Always have integrity, and always have humility. As brilliant as you may be, if you are not humble you cannot make an impact, because you will not be able to lead. You need to be humble to lead."

We admit the brightest minds and we graduate excellent talent — in large numbers. There is great optimism as our students already take leadership roles before they leave us. I have no doubt they will contribute towards solving some of the most complex problems the world is facing. What I hope is that as they do so, our engineers of the future will also care about the future. I want to see them make decisions that impact society and our planet in a positive way, and to consider the longer term consequences. It's important to me to know that they recognize the driving question when solving a problem is not "at what cost?" but rather "at whose cost?"