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“Students feel like their generation has been shortchanged”: How U of T engineering dean Christopher Yip is filling the education deficit

“Students feel like their generation has been shortchanged": How U of T engineering dean Christopher Yip is filling the education deficit
Roberta Baker/University of Toronto Engineering

Even before the pandemic, entering U of T’s uber-competitive engineering program was no cakewalk. But after a year of flip-flopping between in-person and online learning (never mind all the other Covid-related stressors), the class of 2021 faces a particularly steep uphill climb. “We’re seeing students who are stressed about missing out on the fundamentals,” says Christopher Yip, dean of U of T’s applied sciences and engineering program. Last spring, Yip and his team launched the Engineering Academy, an eight-week refresher course aimed at bringing flailing first-years up to speed. After a year of the dreaded quadmester, Yip says, the need is even greater. Here, he tells Toronto Life about how the academy works, why students are stressing, and his pledge to have a coffee with as many of them as possible—preferably in person.

You introduced the Engineering Academy last summer. How does the program work and why is it necessary? The program is an eight-week refresher for first-year engineering students. The idea is to make sure that incoming students have the tools they need to excel, and to fill whatever gaps that may exist based on the very unusual circumstances we have all lived in over the last 16 months. We first started talking about this last spring, when we realized the graduating class of 2020 would be completing high school in a virtual setting. Students missed out on a lot of important material. In the engineering program, we have prerequisites: chemistry, physics, calculus. If you haven’t covered those before graduation, or if you haven’t covered them thoroughly enough, that’s going to be a problem. We reached out to high school teachers to get a sense of the material that they weren’t able to cover as thoroughly as they would have liked. Then we spoke to students to figure out the material they would have liked a review on.

How behind are the students coming into the program? Is this year better or worse than 2020? I think this year is probably worse. Last year, it was this situation where everything was going along like normal, then out of nowhere it was this total pivot. Some schools were able to deliver the end of the year effectively in a virtual scenario, but in other cases, everything just kind of dropped off. Last year, for example, we had a student coming in from semestered school where chemistry was in the second semester, so they only got halfway through the curriculum.

This year, a lot of TDSB schools used the quadmester system—two subjects at a time for six-week intervals. Was that a good call? I fully support whatever efforts were made to ensure that high school teachers could deliver as much material as effectively as possible, but from our perspective, the quadmesters are sort of like a crash course where you learn something really quickly in a surface way. The reality is, it’s not always possible to jam a lot of complex material into a condensed period. And if a student took, say, physics in the first quad back in fall 2020, then it’s been a full 10 months since they’ve looked at that material. We do some review in September, but it’s very fast. The expectation is that students in our program are able to hit the ground running.

Okay, but to play the other side of it—after a year of so much pressure and mental anguish, do high school grads really want to add elective summer school to their to-do lists? We have definitely had some students asking if the Engineering Academy is mandatory, and the answer is no. We just think that this is something students will really appreciate. Also, there are no costs, no exams, and students can complete the material more or less on their own timeline. The other thing is that it’s not just an academic review. Engineering Academy students have the opportunity to sign up with mentors—outgoing first-year students. They can ask questions about everything from workload to campus life. Fostering campus culture in a virtual setting has been a challenge, but this is one way students can form connections. The program also covers the systems we use. When I was a student, you would just walk to the front of the class and hand your work to a teacher, but today, students communicate with instructors in chatrooms and Discord servers. That can be frustrating, which in turn increases stress. Anything we can do to reduce that is important.

Other than tech management, what kinds of stress are you hearing about? A lot of it is this feeling of not being prepared. They’re worried that everyone else in their class is going to know things that they don’t know yet. And then how that might affect their ability to move forward. Everything is building blocks. For example, if you aren’t clear on how to take the first derivative of a parabola, that’s a concept that is critical for optimization. If you get it wrong, nothing is going to work.

So it’s like academic FOMO? Right. And then the other thing they’re worrying about is the long-term impact. There’s a feeling that their generation has been shortchanged, and that when they get out there, there aren’t going to be the same opportunities. That’s one of the ways that I try to be a positive presence, reminding them of the companies that are opening here, and the new partnerships. These are challenging times, but there is also going to be a lot of opportunity in science and engineering. The saying is that engineers love complex problems. I just wish we were dealing with something more theoretical.

At this point, the chances of returning to in-person learning in the fall look good, but not guaranteed. Do you have a plan in place? We’re planning for as much in person as possible, but of course that is going to be governed by the public health regulations: how many people will be allowed in a room? How spaced out do people have to be? Convocation Hall is a great building for 1,000 people, but not if they have to be two metres apart, so we’re waiting to see where things are at in a couple of months. There are some changes that will stay in place. We’ve realized that traditional lectures are something students can watch online in their own time, so when they come to class it’s a more active and interactive form of learning, whether that’s discussions, group work, labs. If you’re building a robot with a team, that’s not a process that translates to the virtual world. Engineering is very tactile. You’re building a physical design. I can’t wait until our students can return to that kind of collaboration.

Is there an aspect of campus life you’re most eager to get back to? I miss the opportunity to communicate with students, just walking around campus and popping in. I’ve done that virtually—the other day I popped into a webinar on the Johnson Space Station—but it’s not the same. For most students, the only time they meet the dean is when I shake their hand at convocation or when they’re in trouble. When I started this role two years ago, I said I wanted to change that, and I made a pledge to that class of first-years to have a one-on-one coffee with every single one of them before graduation.

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That’s a lot of coffee dates. Are you anywhere near your goal? I’m not sure. I don’t keep a list of names or anything. It’s something I’ve kept up with in the last year, probably two or three coffees a week over Microsoft Teams. I’m looking forward to getting back to doing it in person though. I’ve even had mugs made that read “Coffee With Chris” on them. I think the students like having a dean and a faculty that feels accessible. U of T is such a big school. I’ve had repeat customers, third- and fourth-years, even alumni. They’re all chasing me for a mug.

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