Dr. Tom Lee is an adjunct professor of Systems Design Engineering at the University of Waterloo and of Mechatnical Engineering at York University. He has over 20 years of experience in developing system level solutions with cutting edge technology working at businesses like Maplesoft and now Quanser. While deepening my understanding of the Mechatronics design space I felt it absolutely necessary to reach out to him and get his thoughts on this changing landscape. Mechatronic Systems have been around for a while but it is only recently that we’ve seen this shift in how students are being taught at Universities in order to design these systems more efficiently. I had an opportunity to sit down with Tom and get his insight and views on the state of academia with Mechatronics.
“Engineering should be hard, but it shouldn't be boring and hard.”
NI: Dr. Lee, I was recently asked about the challenge with attrition of Engineering students and was told that this could be attributed to [engineering] being hard. Do you think Engineering should be made easier in order to allow for more students to get through?
Dr. Lee: If you’re asking if engineering should continue to be hard, I think you may be over simplifying the issue. It’s not whether it’s hard or easy but whether it’s relevant and meaningful to the student. If it can be made relevant then quite often students will be motivated to learn the concept or skill.
So Engineering should be hard, but it shouldn't be boring and hard. Instead, it should be engaging and hard. All too often I hear faculty members simply dismissing bad courses with the “engineering is hard” . If it's challenging because you're getting them engaged in modeling complex problems, and it’s clear to them how the models help us manage and overcome complexity in the real world, then it can be meaningful and relevant. Today’s students are immersed in technology and are fully aware of the major challenges that society faces and they are seeking ways to connect their education to the world that they see. So I see a real need for us to reflect seriously on how we teach our courses.
NI: Do you see courses being updated? Over the past few years, the mechatronics engineering job market has grown significantly and there is a clear need for students to fill these roles. How do you see universities adjusting to this need in the workforce?
Dr. Lee: I think there are a couple of issues here. Yes, Mechatronics itself is a global trend and movement to reckon with. So we need to implement change to introduce the system, interdisciplinary, and design and build dimensions inherent in the field. In other words, you literally cannot teach Mechatronics in the traditional way. You have to change. But I think this is ultimately a good thing because Mechatronics is associated with some of the most exciting applications of our age, be they robots, driverless cars, or intelligent prosthetics. So a smart university could distinguish itself and be more appealing to the best incoming students with innovative mechatronics programs supported by highly engaging labs. So the change for many, has already started and new mechatronics programs have been emerging globally over the past five years.
NI: What do you think a mechatronics course structure should look like now?
Dr. Lee: The traditional approach to teaching starts with the basics and build up to something complex. But often, if you observe the best teachers, they do it in the opposite way. They hit you hard with the complex challenge up front and show why there's reason to engage, and then students dig deep into the components to get down to the basics. It works best when within the first week, the instructor answers this important question for students: "Why am I taking this course?" If you can add an interaction with the physical world, even better.
NI: Where should these courses start? If we currently have a structure that focuses on introducing the basics and building up, where would this “flipped” approach sit in the curriculum roadmap?
So do you think this type of change is actually possible for our courses? Isn’t it easier to add courses to cover the deficits?
“There is no rule that says those core courses can’t be modified.”
Dr. Lee: In reality, I don’t think most institutions will find it easy to add additional courses within the general program structures. So the only option is to makes some sensible modifications to existing courses. There is no rule that says courses can’t be modified. In fact, one of the questions I’ve been asking recently is whether there can be an efficient way to introduce some interaction with a real physical system to traditionally theoretical or mathematical courses. To help them connect the theory to real physical phenomena and set the stage for eventual design thinking that draw on the course concepts.
NI: I can definitely see how those changes would help introduce, reinforce, and build an engineering intuition in students. But, this approach also seems to come at a cost, and I think the big one here is time. What do you say to fitting this into the ever-looming time constraint?
Dr. Lee: So I’m not suggesting that we add full lab components in all courses. But perhaps review your 13 week syllabus to see if you could reserve one or two weeks to interact with a physical system. If you have sufficient facilities you can have students work directly with the systems. But sometimes even a demonstration during the lectures system can be effective. Or, I’ve seen faculty redirect the tutorial hour partially to introduce such activities. With the right technology platform, you can get surprisingly time efficient ways to connect theory to reality. Can we find an antiquated concept or two in a typical theory heavy course? [chuckling] There’s nothing in accreditation guidelines or education research that says we have to fill 13 weeks with the same stuff that we’ve been teaching for decades.
NI: You mentioned that all of these courses should have a lab that includes some form of interactive physical component. This could lead to multiple courses having a large number of tools to support the respective subjects, is this what you want to see occur?
Dr. Lee: Not necessarily. you have to realize that universities are still organizations that function on budget and timing constraints. What would be ideal is to have a platform of hardware and software that could address multiple courses and ensure consistency between them. This way we can ensure students don’t become discouraged from having to learn a new device for every course, but rather that students grow with the same toolset that expand into more and more courses over the four years.
NI: Dr. Lee, thank you so much for your time and insight. I’m sure your thoughts resonate among your colleagues. I know I’m excited about the future of engineering education.
Mechatronics is not a temporary trend. It has established itself as a necessary area of study developed to solve the problems we have today faster. We are seeing a massive shift in the way systems are imagined and the speed at which they are realized, and with automation trends like Industry 4.0 driving more innovation, the need for talented and prepared students is greater than ever. In order to best prepare these students; however, we must embrace the idea that there needs to be a change in how they are taught.
Learn more about Dr. Lee’s approach to mechatronics engineering education and the teaching solutions he’s working on at Quanser, Inc. in his article: Building a Comprehensive Lab Sequence for an Undergraduate Mechatronics Program.