When Claude Laguë first took the reins as Dean of the University of Ottawa’s Faculty of Engineering in 2006, it was a rather bleak time.
“In 2006, this faculty was among the bottom third at uOttawa, in terms of enrolment, faculty and resources,” he said. “In many ways, we were a lame duck.”
As he prepares to step down as Dean, Dr. Laguë regards the turnaround of the Faculty of Engineering as a hallmark of his time in office.
“Today, this faculty is a powerhouse in the university, and among engineering schools in Ontario,” he stated. “This is something I am really proud everyone here has been able to work on together to achieve.”
Why was the Faculty such a “lame duck” in 2006? It was still weathering the fallout of the telecom boom and bust. About 75 per cent of the Faculty’s focus and resources were on information and communications technology (ICT) – the sector that had been hardest hit.
Equipping students with ‘essential skills’
But at the same time, demand and interest for biomedical, chemical, mechanical and civil engineers was on an uptick. Dr. Laguë and his team set out to rebuild and rebalance the Faculty with the objective of achieving a 50/50 split between ICT and the other engineering disciplines.
But one thing that engineering students as a whole have often struggled with is what Dr. Laguë considers “essential skills” – the interpersonal and business skills to effectively communicate, network and work as part of diverse teams and to be successful.
“Our message has long been that these are essential skills that are just as important as your math and science background,” he shared.
Couple that with the changing dynamics of the workplace, where the typical engineer must now be much more entrepreneurial than they were in the past to build a successful career.
The need to be entrepreneurial
Dr. Laguë and his team have worked to prepare students and grads for this new reality through a number of initiatives, such as the annual Graduate Poster Competition, Design Day and the Prizes in Entrepreneurship and Innovation student competitions. And uOttawa Faculty of Engineering has the only NSERC Chair in Design Engineering in Canada with a specific focus on entrepreneurship.
“Engineers are people who solve practical problems,” Dr. Laguë said. “We want to give students, researchers and our educators an opportunity to directly relate what they are doing to a societal need or a commercial opportunity that exists in society and understand what it takes to successfully bring that idea to market.”
Despite uOttawa’s success in this regard, Dr. Laguë remains disappointed by one thing – the lack of progress over the past 10 years by the profession as a whole to engage more young women in engineering and computer science.
How to bridge the gender gap?
Engineers Canada has set a goal of having 30 per cent of newly licensed engineers in Canada be women by 2030. Engineering lags far behind other professions like medicine or law, with women accounting for less than 15 per cent of all professional engineers.
“If we continue to move at the same pace that we have been since the beginning of the millennium, we’re never going to get there,” Dr. Laguë said.
The place to start? Old stereotypes that still lead parents and K-12 educators to steer girls away from engineering and science, and post-secondary admission requirements that demand too many high school science and math credits.
Overcoming these challenges may lie in part with the rise of the maker movement, and advances in 3D printing. These new tools are helping engineers and tinkerers of all ages collaborate and encouraging more young people to consider a career in engineering. In fact, the Faculty has launched its own Richard L’Abbé Makerspace that’s open to the public, as well as created a uOttawa Maker Mobile that visits K-12 schools and community centres across the region.
“We need to be present, we need to inform kids, parents and K-12 educators about the career opportunities in computer science or engineering that exist for boys and girls,” Dr. Laguë stated. “We have a responsibility to contribute to the technical literacy of our population.”
So what does Dr. Laguë plan to do once he leaves the Dean’s office? As a Fulbright Scholar, he will be spending eight months in California next year to research best practices in student entrepreneurship at California universities. After that, who knows?
“I have a policy of keeping my options open,” he said. “I will be looking for other interesting opportunities. I’ve had 10 great years as Dean that have been both challenging and stimulating.”