What is McMaster Engineering’s transformed first-year curriculum and how does it work?
An inside look at the inaugural year of this program through the lens of first-year students.
How did the Faculty make this a reality? How will this help empower a new generation of engineers who can contribute to a rapidly changing world?
What do 24 faculty members, students, staff and leaders have to say about this new way of learning at McMaster Engineering?
An inside look at McMaster Engineering's new way of learning
In 2020, after years in the making, McMaster Engineering successfully launched the first mass-scale, integrated, human-centred engineering design course found in any educational institution worldwide.
A New Way to Learn
The Student Experience
Meet the People Behind the Pivot
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Jessie Park, Writer JinSung Lee, Designer Monique Beech, Editor Special thank you to everyone involved in bringing this project to life.
Colin McDonald in his home office.
Mechanical Engineering Professor Colin McDonald takes a seat in his home office, transfixed on his laptop screen. Before McDonald lay the daunting task of creating a virtual room for more than 1,100 first-year engineering students. Bigger still is the challenge of how to keep these students engaged for an entire year in McMaster Engineering’s new project-based course -- the first time any public university has attempted to create an engineering design course on this scale, anywhere worldwide. As one of the main architects of this new course, years of work are coming down to a final launch date -- and that date has arrived during a pandemic.
“In a word, our weeks have been full,” McDonald said, noting the team had been working around the clock since March 2020 to get a fully virtualized version of the course ready for September. As the academic year comes to a close, there’s a sense of bewilderment of just how smoothly the first year went. One 1P13 instructor called it a “minor miracle” despite all the unknowns. But it wasn’t luck. It took years of planning, developing and swift action to get 1P13 off the ground.
What exactly is 1P13?
1P13 -- or Integrated Cornerstone Design Projects in Engineering in full -- is a new project-based course that gives first-year students the fundamentals of engineering while putting design thinking, entrepreneurialism and real-world problem solving at the forefront. It’s less of the traditional model of “lecture-then-test,” and more “learning by doing.” The year-long course combines four previously separate courses required for first-year engineering students: computing and programming, materials science, computer-aided design and profession and practice.
Here's how it works.
Students are put into teams and challenged with a series of hands-on labs, design studios and lectures to complete four key design projects over the course of the year.
Project 1 Learn the step-by-step design process of creating a wind turbine blade.
Project 2 Model a contraption that stores surgical tools for sterilization, and code a robot to facilitate the sterilization process.
Project 3 Program a robotic arm to identify different materials and automatically sort cans and bottles into the correct recycling bins.
Project 4 Partner with a client who has a disability which affects their mobility. Using the programming, modelling, design and professional skills from the first three projects, teams create a solution for an everyday challenge the client may face. Successful projects from this course in previous years have since gone on to become promising startups, like Lianna Genovese’s ImaginAble Solutions.
The 1P13 projects are designed to address areas with room for innovation in the real world, such as autonomous vehicles, healthcare, sustainability, renewable energy and challenges in the local community.
At the end of the course, students enter the summer with an impressive online portfolio of four projects they’ve built from the ground up, flexing their tangible experiences with coding, design, materials and teamwork. The portfolio is purposefully embedded in 1P13 to help students land co-op positions and other opportunities, right from the start. Every morsel of the course serves a purpose.
As students start their university careers, the world around them continues to change rapidly. Technology is advancing at lightning speed. Diversity and a global mindset matters more than ever. A pandemic changed the way of the world as we knew it. With engineering more fully integrated into life than ever before, students need to learn to be resilient, calculated risk-takers who are intellectually curious and unfazed by failure. Starting with 1P13 and reinforced in upper-year courses, students are given the tools and the runway they need to become whole engineers.
The End Goal
unfazed by failure
calculated risk taker
outside the classroom
understanding diverse ways of posing solutions to problems
bridging business and engineering
serving the community
The whole engineer
Tools for a whole engineer
design studio experience
Grand Challenges Scholar Program
clubs and teams
co-op job experience
To date, a team of more than 200 professors, TAs, technical staff and co-op students have worked tirelessly to turn this “hands-on” tactile course into a massive success. “We could not have done this without the very strong support and dedication from faculty and staff,” says André Phillion, the director of the Faculty’s Experiential Learning Office. “It’s really an army of TA, IAIs, faculty and everyone coming together for the students.” The key has been a strong base, leading tech partnerships and planning ahead. And, faculty members who viewed working on this challenge as more than just a job -- but a calling.
It’s summer 2020.
It’s September 2020.
Assistant Prof. Bosco Yu prepares for a lecture on materials science. He puts on a bright blue cycling shirt, biking shorts, sporty sunglasses and a helmet, and wheels his bicycle in front of a garage. He gets into character as the camera starts rolling -- Yu speaks about his preferences as an athlete who needs the lightest bike possible, and money is no object. He swaps outfits and characters. When the camera starts recording, Yu is now a city commuter who rides his bike to work and locks it outside. He wants something cheap, dependable and durable to deter bike thieves.
“These are two different clients with different objectives -- how do we select the best materials for a road bike versus a commuter bike?” he asks the students after playing back the pre-recorded client videos.
In every lecture and lab, Yu has made it a point to add at least one physical demo, game, or interactive discussion in the chat to draw students’ attention. He also takes to Twitter and Instagram to post sneak peaks of his in-class demos -- a slinky to show elastic deformation, Taboo with materials, tuning forks, and even an Among Us inspired meme by popular demand.
“As a kid, I was a big science and internet geek. I loved learning by playing with hands-on examples,” says Yu, one of 1P13’s eight co-instructors. “I anticipated that in an online environment, students would have less concentration than in traditional lectures. So I try to use a variety of methods to engage and motivate students to learn.” “As engineers, we need to figure out what questions to ask in the first place, and what knowledge actually applies to that project – and that requires practice. In our opinion, the earlier you learn to do that, the better.” Typically, students work on a Capstone project in their final year, designing a solution for a real client or creating a product using the skills and theories gathered throughout their degree. “Why wait until Capstone when we can do it more consistently, right from Engineering I?”
1P13 comes as part of The Pivot, the largest transformation of the Faculty’s curriculum, experiential learning and classroom experience in its 62-year history. “1P13 is the foundation of this transformed way of learning,” explains Ishwar K. Puri, Dean of Engineering, noting that the course and The Pivot are meant to better accommodate different styles of learning than traditional ways. “Some students like to read, some listen and some prefer learning by doing. Through this approach, we can ensure our education is academically rigorous, at the same time making the learning experience more holistic and engaging,” he adds. LEARN MORE ABOUT THE HISTORY OF THE PIVOT IN PART 3.
A new way to learn powered by state-of-the-art tech
When Martha Kafuko thinks back to her time as a first-year MacEng student in 2012, she says she sees a “real shift” in the way students are learning. Back then, the four required first-year engineering courses were separate from each other. She remembers them being disjointed from one another, and focused on engineering theories and principles. There weren’t as many opportunities to practice applying the theories in real-life scenarios -- that only came in upper-year courses. “Now, right from first year, students are being introduced to real-life, real-world problems and trying to apply engineering principles to them,” says Kafuko, who worked on industry projects at Hatch after graduating in 2017, and came back to McMaster in 2020 as a lab technician for 1P13.
In her home lives a robot made by Quanser, an engineering technology company based in Markham, Ont. It can be programmed to move autonomously on a track, and this is one of the robots students will get a chance to experiment with in person soon -- an opportunity Kafuko didn’t have when she was in first year.
In 2020, the Faculty partnered with Quanser to give students access to virtual lab software not found in any engineering program in Canada. It replicates real-life objects and experiments on students’ personal computers. The robot above was made accessible virtually when in-person labs moved to virtual for Fall 2020. Learn more about how Quanser helped transform McMaster Engineering’s curriculum
“There’s only so many physical robot arms and lots of students, so right from the beginning we worked with Quanser to build a virtual one -- it just turned out that we’re all using the virtual environment now with the circumstances,” says Tom Doyle, an associate professor in Electrical and Computer Engineering who’s teaching the CAD design portion of 1P13 this semester. “It’s great because students can experiment and try the ‘what if’s’ -- they can’t break a virtual arm.”
“Coming back to the university and seeing that the teaching was moving towards problem-based learning, I was pretty excited about the change given that’s how we were learning in industry,” Kafuko adds.
"Being able to connect engineering theory and practice is the single most beneficial educational experience McMaster Engineering students will gain from 1P13," says Steve Hranilovic, associate dean, academic, in the Faculty of Engineering. "We're building students who are trained to question – students who can not only get the material, but understand how it will be applied. Courses are viewed as building blocks to solving problems. I think that fundamentally changes the way you view your education – rather than just passing the course, you're building a portfolio of skills,” he says.
Tom Doyle with his home teaching setup
What did the students say?
Halfway through the full-year course, 657 first-year students were surveyed about how they were doing. Here’s what they had to say:
84 per cent of students felt engaged and motivated in lectures, design studio and labs and felt connected with their teams. 97 per cent of students felt connected with their TAs and IAIs. 93 per cent of students felt connected with their professors. The most pressing challenges for students were technology and WiFi issues, and the challenging transition to university in a virtual environment. About one in four students said they had a completely positive experience with no notable concerns.
“The course is generally engaging and challenging with a good balance of workload and content. Really enjoy it!”
“The pandemic and online school is just a situation that we will have to push through, but 1P13 is always the course I look forward to the most.”
“Other courses have been very difficult and hard to communicate with profs and TA's about circumstance but this course is the only one that I feel actually helps with that.”
Want to read more about the student experience? See a week in the life of first-year student AJ Kourabi.
Nearing the end of the first year after launching 1P13 as part of The Pivot, plans to build on the momentum and improve the program for next year are already underway. “The most exciting aspect is seeing this big project, which has been in development for more than two years, actually roll out. It's also amazing to see the students flex their creativity and push their boundaries. This course is really designed to allow the students to do just that,” says McDonald, who was involved in the development of 1P13 since the beginning.
An inside look at the inaugural year of this program through the lens of first-year students.
The Student Experience
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Meet Abduljawad Kourabi. He goes by AJ.
As an Engineering I student and first-year representative for the McMaster Engineering Society, Kourabi shares his thoughts about the student experience of 1P13, the Faculty of Engineering's reimagined first-year curriculum. Here’s an inside look at a typical week of a 1P13 student through his eyes.
MONDAY, JANUARY 25, 2021 LECTURE AND VIRTUAL LAB
8:45 a.m. PREPARING FOR LECTURE It’s a cold and gloomy winter morning in Oakville, Ont., where Kourabi lives with his family. In 45 minutes, he’ll log onto Teams for his first 1P13 lecture of the week. In any other year, Kourabi would have commuted to McMaster’s campus. But this year, he and his classmates log in virtually from bedrooms, kitchen counters and living room couches. “Nonetheless, I believe we still have had an amazing experience so far,” he says, looking on the bright side. With the fall term behind him and only a few weeks into the winter term -- the second half of the full-year 1P13 course -- AJ says he’s excited to “go into the deep water.” “Fall term was very much a discovery phase where we got our feet wet with all the tools that we’ll be using throughout,” he says, noting Raspberry Pi, Autodesk Inventor and the Quanser labs environment and virtual robots as the main tools. “Now, I’m looking forward to creating genuinely fantastic engineering designs through the engineering processes that we’ve learned. I’m excited to see for myself how everything connects.”
9:30 a.m. LECTURE ONE This morning’s lecture was taught by Prof. Hatem Zurob, Department Chair of Materials Science and Engineering. The topic is electrical properties of semiconductors, a key ingredient in Project Three. “Good morning everyone, how are you today? Hope everyone is doing great. Welcome!” he begins. Students chime in on the Teams chat with questions, comments and the occasional meme. By the end of the hour and a half lecture, there are more than 300 messages in the chat. 1P13 lectures are rarely dull, Kourabi says. In one lecture, Zurob demonstrated sheer stress by ripping up a physical book on camera, and today the lecture slides doubled as a Where's Waldo game, keeping students on their toes. In a recent lecture on programming, Prof. Kevin Browne put away his lecture slides to share his screen while he coded live, troubleshooting errors and building the code for students to watch in real-time. “When I asked them if I should put the slides back up or keep coding, the students really wanted me to keep going with the live coding,” said Browne. The instructors find creative ways to interact with students, trying to bring life into the virtual lecture space. “They’re great at keeping our attention maxed up,” Kourabi said. Kourabi takes notes on his tablet, finding comfort in knowing that all lectures are recorded for later if he misses something -- this is especially convenient for students in different time zones and continents.
McMaster Engineering students from outside of Canada.
Category Canada Outside Canada Country count (excluding Canada)
Graduate 34.2% 65.8% 91
Undergraduate 73.7% 26.3% 48
Overall 68.8% 31.2% 99
“It is extremely easy to connect with my TAs and Professors via Microsoft teams. The professors, TAs and IAIs, have made so much effort to make sure we succeed in this course by providing accessible resources like lab demos, FAQS etc. on Avenue to Learn and hosting office hours. There is a virtual 1P13 office where you can meet with the TAs and some professors to ask questions related to the course and any other engineering-related questions.” - Olorunloluwa Oguntunde, Engineering I student
11:25 a.m. LAB ONE After the lecture, Kourabi walks around the house for a light stretch, refilling his water bottle and reading a few pages of a fiction book. “Reading things that aren’t engineering related during our breaks helps me to relax and come back with a refreshed mind,” he says. At 11:30 a.m., it’s time to hop into another Teams room for a lab. Dami Orole, an instructional assistant intern for 1P13, leads the main session with the groups, going over the lab’s objectives and answering questions in the chat. The virtual labs are where Quanser’s innovative digital-twinning technology comes into play. Last year, McMaster Engineering became the first university in the world to partner with Quanser, Markham-based engineering education technology company, to bring life-like engineering labs to students’ screens. The Quanser Digital Transformation Program uses decades of experience in the design of physical hardware for engineering education and research to create the most detailed, robust and scalable platform available. "Fundamentally, the virtual labs are not a loss of hands-on experience. In fact, this experience is an enhancement of what students would have received -- it's about as real as you can get,” says Tom Lee, formerly Quanser’s Chief Education Officer who joined McMaster’s W Booth School of Engineering Practice and Technology as a faculty member in January 2021.
The students then branch off into their teams of four to complete the task at hand: writing a code that will rotate a turntable for a specified amount of time. This is one step to eventually creating a robotic sorting machine that identifies different materials and places them in recycling bins. Kourabi is working with three new teammates since their teams change with each project. After a short catch up, one of the students launches the Quanser platform on her laptop and shares her screen for the group -- and they get to work.
“Let’s see how we can implement this… What if we tried this?… What could be the issue…” the students chime in as they try different iterations of the function. After 20 minutes, all teams pinged back to join the larger lab group to debrief, led by Orole. She asks how it went, then goes over a solution. The students get the next lab exercise and branch off into their small teams again. With every exercise, which builds off of each other, Kourabi and his teammates are able to see how the robot behaves in real-time. It might rotate too much, too little, or not stop after 5 seconds as directed. “It’s highly programmable and intuitive. We’re really able to change and control variables however we want to,” Kourabi said. Stuck on the code, Kourabi tags a TA in their chat, Eric Hillebrand, who joins their meeting after a couple of minutes. “How close are we?” the students ask. “I’d take a careful look at what ‘time’ is doing in your function…” Hillebrand replies, guiding the students to a solution. Once the students feel they get the idea, Hillebrand leaves the meeting to help another team. The amount of support available at all times is one of the best parts of 1P13, Kourabi says. In 1P13 alone, there are more than 150 TAs distributed across the labs, lectures and design studios to help. After 20 minutes, another debrief with the larger group. They branch off again and regroup four more times, for a total of five exercises in the lab. By the end of the three-hour lab, Kourabi and his team programmed their robot using Raspberry Pi to dispense multiple bottle types on the rotating table. “SUCCESS!”
“Our projects use digital environments which simulate the robotic arms, vehicles and sensors you would have access to in person. There have also been opportunities to do more “hands on” work by making simple prototypes using household objects, and 3D printing of your models which your team can view during your project interview. Despite being online, the process it takes to create an idea, materialize it using your new skill set and troubleshoot errors makes the completion of your final product just as fulfilling as it would be in person.” - Kristen Di Loreto, Engineering I student
5 p.m. STUDYING After a day of lectures and labs, Kourabi makes time to review notes, study for other courses, and check in with the McMaster Engineering recruitment team, where he serves as a student ambassador. Tonight, he met with professors and 1P13 design studio representatives to discuss student feedback on the course. “The Faculty were amazingly responsive to the feedback we provided and it’s always interesting seeing both sides of the coin on this course,” he said. “I’ve genuinely received overwhelming feedback from students on how good the pace of the course is. It’s 13 units -- 13 hours a week -- so it’s a lot, but when you follow the instructions and the work it’s manageable to follow,” he adds.
In the inaugural year of 1P13, course instructors are actively working with students on ways to improve the course for next year. Some of these changes include tweaking lab exercises, adding more ice-breakers in design studios, and a newly implemented “1P13 Virtual Office” for a centralized place for updates and resources for first-year students. The course will also evolve as the Faculty prepares for a possible hybrid online and in-person delivery, and fully in-person delivery in the future.
9:30 a.m. DESIGN STUDIO For Kourabi, Tuesdays are for design studios. Design studio is dedicated time for teams to split off into their computing subteam, which has two people, and the modeling subteam, which also has two people. Working on different parts of the project, they then come together at the end of the design studio to combine their work. Led by Arina Deboer, an IAI, today’s design studio is focused on drafting a code for the Q-bot, Quanser’s virtual robot, which should sort the recyclable bottles from the non-recyclable ones with the right programming. The students use Autodesk Inventor to model their designs, and Raspberry Pi to experiment with their code. “I feel a lot more confident in terms of using the specific code after the lab yesterday. Even though we only programmed the table, I think it’s highly transferable into the code for the Q-bot,” Kourabi said, who is part of the computing subteam. By the end of the two hours, Kourabi and his team had finished a flowchart for the “dispense” function for the Q-bot. “We’ll pretty much have the final model done by next week,” Ing reports back to the group on the modelling subteam.
TUESDAY, JANUARY 26, 2021
“It's really helpful to be able to connect with a group of first year students right at the start of the year in the first design project, as it helps you not only start to collaborate with like-minded people, but it also gives you a chance to make friendships with other people in your program. It's also been an amazing way to learn how to work with different types of people, since this is a skill that is needed in the workplace.” - Joel
A quick look at the rest of Kourabi’s week in 1P13:
WEDNESDAY, JANUARY 27, 2021 Second lecture of the week. Topic: Electrical conductivity with Prof. Hatem Zurob
THURSDAY, JANUARY 28, 2021 Second lab of the week. Exercise: Using Autodesk Inventor to model a 3D chair.
Here’s the final look at the team’s functioning Q-bot:
At the end of a jam-packed week filled with 1P13 labs, lectures, design studios, extra-curricular activities, meetings and other courses, Kourabi reflects on the highlights. “I love the labs because we’re able to bounce ideas off each other, even virtually. When you’re with a group, it makes the learning process so much more enjoyable and intuitive because it just flows," he says. There’s a “wealth of resources” to help students wherever they are, which helps to offload the intensity of the full-year course. Getting to experience parts of various engineering disciplines through actually “doing,” not just understanding the theories, also helped Kourabi realize where he wants to specialize moving forward: engineering physics. “It was wonderful how they weaved into many concepts into one full course, and it really embodies learning by doing,” he says. “I can see the links, and how professional engineers need to understand not just the technical side of things, but also project management, teamwork and how one thing affects everything else in a project.”
How did the Faculty make this a reality? How will this help empower a new generation of engineers who can contribute to a rapidly changing world?
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The road to launching the 1P13 course at McMaster Engineering was a long and purposeful one, stretching far beyond the course itself. It’s a part of a larger movement within the Faculty to transform engineering education and the student experience: The Pivot.
What was the vision behind transforming the curriculum, and how did we get here? Here’s a look at the legacy of 1P13, part of The Pivot, the Faculty’s largest transformation in its 63-year history.
“Why fix what isn’t broken? Why transform a leading engineering program and rebuild it in a way that might be “too different” for some students and professors? Wouldn’t that be risky -- and just flatout hard -- especially to launch it during a pandemic?”
These were some of the questions asked in both early and recent conversations about redesigning McMaster Engineering’s approach to engineering education, recalls Dean Ishwar K. Puri, who joined the Faculty as Dean in 2013. Before calling Hamilton, Ont. home, Puri spent nearly 15 years as a professor and associate dean at the University of Illinois Chicago, then another nine years at Virginia Tech, where he was department head of engineering science and mechanics. When he arrived at McMaster, Puri decided that he wanted to do things differently. What followed was a bold and daunting idea to change the Faculty’s curriculum into a blended learning format which centred around project-based and experiential learning, stepping away from the traditional “lecture-and-test” model. It would take agility, flexibility, a willingness to invest millions — both from Faculty funds and donor goodwill — in innovative programming, and a certain appetite for calculated risk based on years of experience. Nothing of this scale had been done before at any engineering school. In Fall 2020, more than 1100 engineering students started learning through integrated project-based learning. Though there have been smaller boutique programs here and there, this is the first instance of massifying an integrated experiential learning in engineering. “We're not just leaders in the GTA, in Ontario or even Canada. We are leaders in the entire world,” he says.
Experiential learning leads the way
When Puri first joined McMaster, the shift to bringing more attention to experiential learning in the engineering program was underway by his predecessor, David Wilkinson, who served as Dean of Engineering from 2008 to 2012. Around that time, Puri says he recalls feeling underwhelmed by the “status quo” model for engineering education he was seeing around the world. Lecture-based university education was becoming an “information dump,” Puri says, which was also being scaled up to the point where many students wouldn’t get the hands-on experience that would prepare them for the workforce. But he was excited by the spirit of holistic, problem-based learning at McMaster -- seen at the forefront of the university’s Michael G. Degroote School of Medicine, which has become renowned worldwide for its problem-based approach to medicine. Puri was also inspired by the University College London (UCL), which was developing an integrated engineering curriculum at the time along with the UCL Changemakers program, which was designed for students to address problems on campus.
Why experiential learning?
Experiential learning provides students with hands-on learning opportunities beyond the traditional lecture-style format. We are challenged to re-imagine engineering education as a holistic approach to educating the whole engineer. Through The Pivot, we are transforming the undergraduate experience into a rich experiential learning opportunity.
The Pivot’s Five Key Competencies
Students gain the following:
Discover + Create (DC): Mentored research or project experiences to enhance technical competence and creativity Integrate + Solve (IS): Understanding and bridging multiple and diverse ways of defining problems and posing solutions. Business + Innovate (BI): Understanding gained through experience that viable business models are necessary for the successful implementation of engineering solutions Global + Diversity (GD): Understanding gained through experiences where serious consideration of cultural issues is mandatory to successfully implement engineering solutions. Citizen + Community (CC): Deepen social consciousness and motivation to address global and local societal problems because serving people is the vision of engineering.
Grand Challenges Program
iBioMed program and 1P03
Course credit for extra-curricular
How did we get here?
The Making of 1P13
says Steve Hranilovic, McMaster Engineering’s associate dean, academic and a professor in Electrical and Computer Engineering. He says it’s just one example of a larger movement within the Faculty. It also brought together instructors from various departments to work on an interdisciplinary course -- rather than the courses being taught separately, they now flow into one another seamlessly. “We realized that technical skills are only the beginning, and only one essential component to solving a problem. These important soft skills -- entrepreneurship, communication, global and design thinking -- have to be purposefully introduced to students rather than hoping they'll learn it through random experiences,” Hranilovic says. The essence of 1P13 is giving students these technical and diverse skills in a richer environment, where there’s strong mentorship and support at the ready for students as they transition from high school to university. Ken Coley, who was the Faculty’s associate dean, academic from 2008 to 2019 and is now the Dean of Engineering at Western University, says the creation of 1P13 wasn’t the result of a big epiphany or plan. He calls it the result of many “micro-revolutions'' as the team worked to improve many areas of the engineering program -- the student experience, retention rate, better representation of women, and focus on experiential and integrated learning. “The program is equipping students to craft their own futures,” Coley adds. Instead of trying to predict where the future and technology will be in 10 years time, the program now focuses on giving students the technical and soft skills to be creative problem-solvers. “If you have the skill to recognize the learning you need, you’ll always be able to stay current no matter how quickly technology evolves,” he says.
"1P13 was a long time coming,"
The blend of in-class and out-of-class experiences at UCL sparked an idea, formed in collaboration with his partner, Beth Levinson. The couple brought the spirit of the program back to McMaster, with Puri championing an Engineering-led co-curricular program that would be open to students from every discipline. Levinson, who worked for the MacPherson Institute at the time, would go on to create and launch MacChangers with then Engineering Outreach Director, Lynn Stewart. In 2015, they started off small with a 15 student cohort who were asked to address issues on campus and look for solutions. While some of the ideas from the initial student groups worked, many didn’t or weren’t feasible. Levinson and Stewart quickly realized that they needed to change tact from a campus-centred approach to a community-engaged co-curricular program that aligned with global grand challenges facing society. They decided to work on transportation issues facing the City of Hamilton. “It seemed like MacChangers really tapped into something that the students were interested in,” said Levinson, an education developer, Office of Community Engagement. “We were able to introduce the idea of design thinking to students and really having the idea around a client and collaborating on ideas and defining a problem.” The program pivoted again to a focus on the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal with a local lens through challenges identified by the Our Future Hamilton initiative. “The thing that I thought was really good about MacChangers was the cross-faculty involvement,” recalls Stewart, who retired from McMaster in 2017. “‘How do you talk to other people who aren’t the same as you?’ was really an important skill for engineering students to develop.” MacChangers led to rich conversations about educating students in a different way. “We started to have discussions in the Faculty about how to move the needle forward -- how we can educate the whole engineer,” Puri says, noting the shift towards bridging the disconnect between academics and experiences outside of the classroom, like clubs, teams, undergraduate research and co-op. The goal was clear: bring more experiential learning into and outside the classroom for better student outcomes.
“That became the essence of The Pivot.”
Launching during a pandemic
After years of planning and development, 1P13 was set to launch in September 2020. Just six months before, COVID-19 entered the picture. “When the pandemic hit and we had to go virtual, we had to make a very quick and difficult decision: do we take 1P13 and implement it in a virtual environment, or do we just continue with the old way of delivery to students?” Puri adds. The Faculty chose to go the virtual way, having confidence in their partner, Quanser, to deliver technology custom-designed to carry out 1P13’s hands-on labs in a virtual format.
Fun fact: Even before COVID-19, the Faculty was already preparing ways to virtualize the four modules in 1P13. Why? Prof. Tom Doyle started a discussion around how to best support students who might fail one part of the course, or otherwise not succeed due to illness or extreme circumstances. They wanted to make sure that a student in this situation could repeat the specific module and not have to repeat the entire year-long course. The course would be modularized, and if they could be modularized, they could be virtualized. So they started virtualizing the modules with Quanser months before the pandemic pushed everything to go virtual.
The 1P13 faculty team worked around the clock all spring and summer to get the modules ready for 1,100 students. Hranilovic says the team pulled it off incredibly well because they didn’t just treat it as a job that needed to be done -- they treated it as their calling. “It was a difficult summer for all of us. But the underlying motivation was our students, so we pulled it off,” he adds. “We couldn’t have made it this far without everyone pulling together. We’re committed to it because we believe this is the way engineering education has to go.”
Steve Hranilovic at his home office
Ishwar K. Puri
What’s next is a cascade of changes to the second and third-year programs across all departments in the Faculty of Engineering. Here’s what that looks like:
First-year course: 1P13 Integrated Cornerstone Design Projects in Engineering
Launched September 2020. Full-year course. Combines programming, materials science, graphics design and profession and practice into four project-based modules.
Second-year course: 2PX3 Integrated Engineering Design Projects
To launch January 2022. One term. Combines engineering design with communication and collaboration skills.
Third-year course: 3PX3 Integrated Engineering Design Projects
To launch January 2023. One term. Combines engineering design with economics and cost analysis.
Fourth-year Capstone Projects
Ongoing. Led by each department within the Faculty of Engineering.
“This gives our students not only novel and exciting engineering design experiences, but also practical applications where they see how engineering and the real world intersect,”
says André Phillion, director of the Faculty’s Experiential Learning Office.
What do 24 faculty members, students, staff and leaders have to say about this new way of learning at McMaster Engineering?
Meet the People Behind the Pivot
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Meet the People Behind the Pivot
Integrated Cornerstone Design Projects in Engineering, known as the course code 1P13, is a new way of learning for first-year engineering students. In September 2020, after years in the making, McMaster Engineering successfully launched the first mass-scale, integrated, human-centred engineering design course found in any educational institution worldwide. As the inaugural year of McMaster Engineering’s transformed first-year curriculum comes to an end, the Fireball Family reflects on what’s worked well and what’s to come.
ISHWAR K. PURI, Dean, Faculty of Engineering
“The story of 1P13 and The Pivot is about furthering education innovation in Canada. First-year students used to take four different courses in silos. But now, it's amalgamated into one course where the ‘sage on the stage,’ or the professor, has become the ‘guide by the side.’ Our ambition was to really roll it out last fall. When the pandemic hit and we had to go virtual, we had to make a very quick and difficult decision: do we take 1P13 and implement it in a virtual environment, or do we continue with the old way of delivery to students? And we chose to go the virtual way. It was a difficult decision because while I have an enormous appetite for risk, the risk is really on student outcomes. We have an incredible team of faculty members dedicated to student outcomes, and we had high trust in Quanser to deliver an exceptional virtual lab experience, which they have. As a result, right now there are 1,100 students that are doing integrated learning through projects. Why is this significant? It's never been done in the world before. We're not leaders in the GTA, in Ontario, we're not just leaders in Canada. We are leaders in the entire world. 1,100 engineering students learning through integrated project-based learning has never been done before.”
"We want students to develop the types of skills – both technical and communications skills – so they can be given a problem and be able to know what they need to approach it, and not be intimidated by that. I want students to be comfortable to develop those skills, articulate their thoughts confidently, answer hard questions, get feedback that's maybe disappointing to hear and be able to recognize how to incorporate it into their work. The whole purpose of first-year is to get students to recognize that there's different ways of approaching problems, then we can build on that in subsequent years of our new curriculum that's coming down the pipeline. It's also to see the students flex their creativity and push their boundaries. This course is really designed to allow them to do just that.”
COLIN MCDONALD, Assistant Professor, Department of Mechanical Engineering, Experiential Learning Office; Co-instructor for 1P13
“Resilience and adaptability. These are the most valuable lessons any student can acquire during their studies. The Pivot addresses this these competencies directly by allowing students the opportunity to learn skills and apply them to real-world problems. "Learning by doing” is the essence of our programs and equips our students to be agile learners securing their success, even in the face of uncertainly. The future is bright. We've made a commitment as a faculty to leverage the strength of our culture to develop unique pedagogical approaches that give students skills and experiences that they couldn't get from a traditional course-based instruction.”
STEVE HRANILOVIC, Associate Dean, Academic, Faculty of Engineering
"The real importance that we're placing in first-year is reflecting on past experiences which is really important for engineers. It's important because it helps the students to internalize and demonstrate to themselves that they're becoming better engineering students. Oftentimes, in engineering education students carry out engineering design, but they don't ever reflect on if their design was the right design, or the best design. We're giving them space to think about how it can be improved – they're strengthening their design skills and learning how to think outside the box to make a good design excellent.”
ANDRÉ PHILLION, Associate Professor, Department of Materials Science and Engineering; Director of Experiential Learning
STEPHEN ELOP, McMaster Engineering alumnus (B. Eng. Management ‘86), CEO, APiJET
"I didn't recognize it at the time, but between project planning and design, budgetting, presentations to the then president of the university, pulling cables through the steam tunnels beneath campus and even training people in the network's use, I was the unwitting recipient of one of the most comprehensive and arguably one of the most expensive, personalized experiential learning programs ever put on by the Faculty of Engineering. Let's call it Engineering 1A48. Now while I did not actually get course credit for the work, there is no doubt in my mind that those early formative experiences were the foundation for so much of my life and career that has followed. Experiential learning worked for me."
HATEM ZUROB, Professor and Chair, Department of Materials Science and Engineering; Co-instructor for 1P13
“When I joined McMaster 15 years ago, one of the first courses I was asked to teach was the first-year introductory materials science course. I must have taught that course more than 20 times -- it’s definitely one of my favorite courses to teach. Now being one of the instructors teaching materials science as part of 1P13, I had to reprogram myself from my previous way of thinking where I needed to speak about everything in the lecture and cover every concept in detail. I really have to take a step back and give them the big picture. I found that even though I didn’t get a chance to talk about something in detail in lecture, the students actually absorb them even better by doing experiments in labs, working in design studios, doing additional readings. I just have to keep in mind that the lecture is only a small part of the big picture, and students will get a lot more information outside the class, in the design studio and in the lab working in teams -- and the outcome will be just as good, if not better.”
TOM DOYLE, Associate Professor, Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering; Co-instructor for 1P13
“There’s only so many physical robot arms and lots of students, so right from the beginning we worked with Quanser to build a virtual one -- it just turned out that we’re all using the virtual environment now with the circumstances. It’s great because students can experiment and try the ‘what if’s’ -- they can’t break a virtual arm. Ultimately, there's only so many seats at the front of the class. With the interactive chat and meeting rooms on Teams, it feels like we're all sitting across the table from each other. Many students are gaining the comfort to ask questions and have a conversation about the things they'd like more clarity on. And oddly, I find a more personal interaction although we're not in person.”
LIZ HASSAN, Assistant Professor, Department of Mechanical Engineering; Co-instructor for 1P13.
“When we think about design teaching, we imagine it happening through sketching on paper and prototyping physically in a studio. This year, with it being a new course and everything being online it was an open question: how do we teach students to design without ever meeting them and without them ever interacting with the client in person? It’s really a credit to the faculty, staff, teaching assistants and students, and most especially our amazing client, that we were able to cultivate the same creativity and innovation even though everything was happening at a distance because the magic was in the interactions between people. In some ways, our interactions were better because we were able to see in the client’s home environment, and have more continuous feedback."
KEN COLEY, former Associate Dean, Academic, Faculty of Engineering (Currently Dean of Engineering, Western University)
“What is the Pivot about in essence? For years, we've been chasing the future with our curriculum, always trying to catch up with technology, particularly in engineering. It's harder and harder to catch up because the technology is moving forward at a faster pace. Instead of trying to use a crystal ball to say, ‘this is where the future will be in 10 years time so let's have our students ready for that,’ we teach our students to craft their own learning based on a situational need. So they’ll always be current because as long as you have the foundation, the skill to recognize the learning you need, you'll always be able to stay current. That became the essence of the Pivot. We're equipping our students to craft their own futures.”
BOSCO YU, Assistant Professor, Department of Materials Science and Engineering; Co-instructor for 1P13
“I know that learning engineering and science can be hard. But we should challenge the misconception that “hard” means “boring.” We pride ourselves on providing our students with a rigorous and comprehensive education in the fundamentals of engineering, but at the same time we are committed to making the learning experience exciting and engaging for the students. We want to spark a passion for learning that our students will carry through to the rest of their careers in engineering.”
ROBERT FLEISIG, Associate Professor, W Booth School of Engineering Practice and Technology Associate member, Department of Mechanical Engineering; Co-instructor for 1P13
“The single most important thing is we need to start having conversations about learning. And the learning conversation really is about students’ stories and what really happens in their learning. We need to dig quite deep into their experiences to find out what happened and get into some really concrete findings. The next steps for 1P13 will be to refine the learning outcomes and find ways of introducing higher methods of thinking into the curriculum. And then looking at ways of creating more coaching in the curriculum so we can be helpful guides to the students.”
KEVIN BROWNE, Assistant Professor, Department of Computing and Software; Co-instructor for 1P13
“I've been doing a ‘live coding’ style of lecturing where I've actually had the slides closed most of the time -- I just keep them in the corner and I pull them out maybe to go over a definition, but most of the time I've been coding in the text editor in front of them and showing them the results. I wasn't sure how that was going to fly, but I asked the students if I should go to the slides or just keep coding, and they said to keep coding. That was interesting because that's a style that I don't think that they're used to. It was fun for me as an educator, seeing that this translates well to this audience.”
SHELIR EBRAHIMI, Assistant Professor, Department of Chemical Engineering; Co-instructor for 1P13
“Some teams want the industry partner to clearly tell them what they want. And I always tell them ‘yes, they know what they ultimately want, but it’s your job as an engineer to explore their ideas to get to that final outcome that they want.’ You can’t expect the client to tell you every single step of what you need to do. That’s the engineer’s job -- and they’re practicing this right from first year. With similar courses coming for second year and third year, hopefully by the time that they come to the Capstone fourth-year course they have the skills and knowledge to work better with industry clients. They’ll be practicing the process over and over, so it’s going to become like a natural habit.”
MARTHA KAFUKO, Lab Technician for 1P13 and McMaster Engineering alumna
“What I found was that you often know the theory, but not many examples of when the theory can be applied in real-life scenarios. I'm recognizing the shift from when I took first-year engineering at McMaster to now – we're looking at real-life, real-world problems and trying to apply engineering principles to them. Right from first-year, they're being introduced to the way they can solve real-world problems, which is a lot different from the theoretical curriculum when I took it. With all the different projects, we're showing students different ways that the basic building principles they are learning can be applied. The projects teach them the same principles while giving them a wide variety of applications. If you learn programming, you can apply it to medical devices. If you learn mechanics, you can apply it to physical structural locations. It challenges them to jump out of their comfort zone. At the end of the day, as long as they have a can-do spirit about something, they will thrive and that spirit can be used in many other courses, as well."
BASEM YASSA, Instructional Assistant for 1P13 and McMaster Engineering alumnus
“I was wowed when I started working on this course. I wish I was in first-year right now -- I wish I had to work with Raspberry Pi's and material science selection, and go in depth about real-world problems when I was in first year. One of my biggest worries before the semester was how students will develop their critical thinking skills if they don't have a big group of colleagues to work with. But the amount of support each group is getting showed me that they're still able to learn and adapt to the situations that they're in. It's pretty cool to see how they go from being completely new to a certain topic, like computing, and now they're writing full programs to do tasks for the project that they're building. Each student is going to have a solid resume as soon as they're done first year, and they can go apply to co-op jobs and have experience. I'm happy for them for that.”
JESSICA ANDERSON, Administrative Coordinator for Engineering 1
“The whole point was this is supposed to be hands-on and experiential, and that was our biggest challenge because how do you have hands on experiential group work when no one can be anywhere near each other? The team very quickly just started brainstorming various simulations and platforms, and we really tried to plan for all the worst case scenarios to the best of our ability. We obviously are flexible and if a student comes to us and is having a hard time because of the timezone issues, they really do what they can to accommodate within reason which is important having as many international students as we do.”
HOPE GIANICOS, Instructional Coordinator for Engineering 1
“I thought there would be a lot more students having a hard time engaging and I couldn't really see how the labs were going to work. I draw from experience because my son was a first-year engineering student last year, so I didn’t know how these students were going to get that hands-on experience. But they're really doing such a good job with it and the students that I've spoken to as well are loving the course. So that's really good. I think the only thing that they're really missing is the social right aspect of a first-year university experience. It was interesting to watch all the pieces come together. It's really quite impressive.”
JOEL TUNIKAITIS, Engineering I student (Niagara, Ont.)
"1P13 has been the best class for getting to know people because you get to socialize in your groups and become quite close to your teammates. I still talk to my first team whenever I have an issue with an assignment, and I haven't really met anybody in other classes like math or physics, because you're in a lecture with 350 people with their cameras turned off. When you're spending up to eight hours a week with the same group, you feel connected, especially when the group is talkative.”
MWAI M’MBIJJEWE, Engineering I student (Kenya)
“I thought that because everything was going to be digital, that it would be quite boring -- that there wouldn’t be that much you were doing. Specifically with the 1P13 program, they still managed to make me feel like an engineer even sitting at home. They’re teaching me things in the solutions-oriented way, so I'm sitting at home and I'm being taught to figure out a renewable energy solution for a large population. That was a highlight because I thought I'd just be getting someone talking, not to me, but at me. That was not the case. The rigorousness of the course, as well as the way it's being taught as an online platform made me have to learn new skills and improve other ones, such as time management. I have taken advantage of academic advising, which has really supported me and provided connection to the university in a sense. That was someone that I can talk about where I am academically, my ambitions, where I'd like to be academically, what I can do, what I can change to make this as successful as possible.
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ERIKA TENNANT, Engineering I student (Calgary, Alta.)
“Professors, TAs and instructional assistants have been so accessible and helpful. We can tag our TAs on Teams and they'll be there in five minutes to help with a question. I know that's not something that happens in every university, and it's really awesome to have that and the dedicated time with our lab group. The virtual labs are definitely one of the strong points of first-year. I've really enjoyed the computing labs and working on design – it feels almost like you're there even though it's virtual. Even in design studio, we're able to see how all those parts in the labs come together and how they're actually all related, even though they're completely different focuses in engineering. I thought that was really cool how we always get to see a little glimpse of what engineers actually have to consider in their projects.”