The prepared text of a speech given at the Engineering Science Alumni Dinner, Friday 04 April 2008.
Good evening. I have been asked to speak briefly about my personal experience, and about student development and leadership in the Division of Engineering Science. This is an extraordinarily difficult assignment. Not only do I follow Prof. Cheng and others of intellect and stature, but you, my audience, are a variety of Engineering Science undergraduates and alumni. If the Registrar's office is correct, at least three quarters of you are smarter than me. So though I resolve to avoid truisms about the Division, I am all but guaranteed to put my foot in my mouth. Please forgive me.
Yet perhaps that is a good place to start. I once had a proclivity for offering wholly fabricated technical explanations for things I knew next to nothing about. It didn't help that these explanations were plausible and often accepted, or that only my mother regularly saw through my 'BS'. In fact, not until I arrived at UofT and encountered some uncommonly brilliant classmates did I learn to shut my mouth and truly think before I spoke.
And this is what EngSci does; it changes you. It transforms you from the big fish in the small pond to a very self-conscious tadpole in a startlingly wide ocean. It makes you aware, through duress, of precisely where your limits lie, and how grossly you had underestimated them. It alters your perspective on learning — from a classroom activity to the first step in solving any worthy problem.
The one thing it does not change, however, is natural curiosity. The typical EngSci student is a "What's next?" person. As early as primary school, she was impatient with her teachers and the curriculum. "What's next?" was what she wanted to know. As an undergraduate, he stumbles to class at the tail end of an all-nighter to submit an assignment, yet wearily asks, "What's next?" (Usually another problem set!) And I would argue, upon graduation, we still demand to know "What's next?"
Well, what is next? We are often told that "the world is getting smaller." I feel this is misleading; the Earth and the human race remain mind-bogglingly large. What is meant is that everything is now done faster…bigger, longer, and more often than a decade or century ago. Every aspect of human endeavour is amplified, and the effects are writ large on the planet, our society and ourselves.
Engineering is a key mechanism of this progress, especially the traditional engineer's happy function of devising better widgets. But it is increasingly apparent that the erstwhile reading of 'better' — that is, cheaper, more powerful, longer-lasting — was naïve. Further, the very concept of the traditional engineer has all but been thrown out the window.
As EngScis, we know this innately. We know that when the widget is part of a more durable assault rifle, or when it is a valve in a more powerful but gas-hungry automobile engine, 'better' becomes a false descriptor. Other examples are less stark, yet we know that engineers in traditional disciplines still spend a majority of their time iterating problems already solved. Meanwhile, poverty, hunger, anthropogenic climate change and armed conflict continue.
Many of us are here precisely because we have so little patience with that widget. We know what it is, and does; we want to know "what's next?" Where codes of engineering ethics urge us not to harm society through negligence, many EngScis proactively take their talents to the fields of medicine, law, governance and humanitarianism. We view today's challenges not merely as a heavy obligation attendant on our profession — though they are that — but an opportunity for sophisticated analysis, creative design and elegant solutions.
This is what I see in the Division's motto — Engineers For The World, E4TW — which always earns some eye-rolling as a "cheesy rip-off" of the older and more brash ERTW. Such eye-rolling is symptomatic of the way we sometimes ape the sterotype of the traditional engineer. The Division staff have given it serious thought, and the outcomes are exciting student development activities, some of which I have been privileged to take part in.
Several of these are curricular. Through the Praxis courses and a fourth-year, student-facilitated seminar, we discuss ethics, real intelligent design and issues like water security, technology transfer to developing countries, and nuclear power versus proliferation. After asking itself "What's next?" the Division is introducing an Energy Option this fall, because that is among the most pressing of the coming global resource issues.
Few EngScis left behind student governance, social activism, musicianship and athletic excellence when they came here. For many, it was obvious what was next, and the result is a disproportionate number of EngScis leading student groups, clubs and teams across the university. The Division thus took the laudable step of joining the Leaders of Tomorrow program, which encompasses student working groups, tailored workshops for personal development, and even a full-term course taught by former DuPont Canada CEO and Chairman — and UofT grad — David Colcleugh.
The students in these working groups, classes and workshops learn communications, motivation and goal-setting. They learn to think, to respond carefully and decisively to complex issues in complex organizations — and very often they think of their juniors in the Division and ask "How can I pass on what I've just learned?" The Division obliged by creating venues such as Online Orientation for incoming first years, and peer tutoring groups where mentorship promotes learning outside of the classroom.
It is exhilarating to be part of these changes, and see them working. Their aim is clear. The EngSci student is already driven by instinct to discover "What's next?" But when she graduates equipped with a world-class technical background plus an awareness of emerging problems and of her capacity to lead, she becomes a truly formidable force for change. No leap of the imagination is required to predict that such people will topple barriers, shift paradigms and redefine 'better'.
So, "What's next?" New realms of engineering. As undergraduates, we must believe our professors when they remind us that the true challenges lie beyond exams and problem sets.
"What is next?" Leadership. My fellow 0T7+PEYs and 0T8s, we must realize that we are equipped for more than just 'a job' or 'more school.'
"What is next?" Alumni, professors and mentors, we rely on you to help us answer this question — please, when you meet younger EngScis, graduate or no, dangle some impossible, Herculean task in front of them. The results will certainly astound you.