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New chairs, director stress experiential learning

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Ensuring hands-on education remains a focus at Waterloo Engineering is a common denominator for new leaders recently appointed to the top posts in three of its eight departments or academic units.

Despite coming from different disciplines, Anne Bordeleau of the School of Architecture, Vincent Gaudet of Electrical and Computer Engineering, and Jeff West of Civil and Environmental Engineering all talked in recent interviews about the continuing importance of experiential learning.

They also discussed their backgrounds, research interests and priorities as Waterloo Engineering approaches its 60th anniversary next year.

Anne Bordeleau – Director of the School of Architecture

An architect and historian who has been a professor at Waterloo since 2007, Bordeleau has an abiding interest in the relationship between architecture and time, as well as a strong belief that the discipline is best taught within a full cultural context.

She has a PhD from the Bartlett School of Graduate Studies at University College London in the United Kingdom after obtaining bachelor and master’s degrees from McGill University.

Anne BordeleauA registered architect in Quebec, her research has included historical investigations as well as studies of processes such as casting. She co-produced The Evidence Room, a chilling exhibit that included plaster casts of historical evidence from Auschwitz, showcased this year at the renowned Venice Biennale.

As director, Bordeleau has set three broad goals for the school: strengthening its connections with both local and global communities, including possible research stints for students in Asia, Africa and other areas of the world; increasing classroom instruction in cultural histories beyond Europe to better reflect the diversity of students, while also building on an existing focus on hands-on work in studios; more collaboration across disciplines, including development of a new degree program called integrated design that would combine elements of architecture, engineering and the arts.

“It is about opening their eyes rather than just honing in on disciplinary skills and putting them into silos,” she said of her view that the school’s purpose is to both train architects and help develop critical thinkers.

Vincent Gaudet – Chair of the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering

After obtaining an undergraduate degree in computer engineering from the University of Manitoba, Gaudet earned his master’s and a PhD at the University of Toronto. He did research in France, took sabbaticals in the United States and Japan, and was a faculty member at the University of Alberta before coming to Waterloo in 2010.

He is a senior member of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) and his research, boiled down to its basics, focuses on building extremely small, “nearly nano-scale” computer chips that are energy efficient.

Vincent GaudetGaudet notes that electrical and computer engineering at Waterloo is the largest engineering department of any kind at any university in Canada -  with 93 professors and about 2,100 undergraduates and 580 graduate students – “and we’re still growing” after rapid expansion in recent years.

“Making the most out of what is right now really a great situation for us is crucial,” he said.

Along with managing and maximizing the potential of that growth, Gaudet is concerned with encouraging more experimental research, an approach that dovetails with the department’s emphasis on experiential learning through co-op placements and well-equipped labs.

“You learn by doing stuff,” he said.

Jeff West – Chair of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering

Although appointed chair earlier this year, West doesn’t assume the post until January because he is on a year-long sabbatical, including six months split between a Chicago-area consulting firm and the Illinois Institute of Technology.

Previously the associate chair of undergraduate studies, he has been a professor at Waterloo since 2002 after working for three years at an engineering firm in Texas. He got his PhD in structural engineering at the University of Texas at Austin to go with master’s and bachelor degrees from the University of Manitoba.

Jeff WestWest’s research concerns extending the lifespan of existing structures, including buildings and bridges, as well as the many benefits, and unique challenges, involved with modular construction.

As chair, he is looking forward to getting final approval and implementing a new architectural engineering undergraduate program that would integrate the technical and creative elements of building design.

Other priorities include expanding graduate programs, and enhancing existing undergraduate programs to ensure they meet industry needs, continue to interest students and offer more projects that draw on lessons learned across multiple subjects to solve complex problems.

“I think one of the primary goals of an engineering undergraduate education is to become a really good problem-solver,” said West.

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