How to Engineer the Right Degree

Theory or hands-on: how these engineering programs stack up

BY ADAM SCHACHNER - As a recent graduate in mechanical engineering from McGill, I feel I am qualified to offer some advice on how to choose a school. I did a lot of research on the four that accepted me, but I attended both McGill and Universite de Montreal's Ecole Polytechnique for the first week because I couldn't choose. I was more impressed with Polytechnique, but decided on McGill for several reasons, including its reputation. With the wisdom gained from five years of study, I would ask different questions, I would understand the answers better, and I would have chosen differently. 

My main priorities would be flexibility (do they have a part-time option so you can work or take it at your own pace?), co-op experience (I prefer short, more frequent placements ), the state of equipment and access to labs (Do they have a working band saw? Are they available for personal use?) and a balance of theoretical and practical exploration. I've compiled a list of engineering schools to be considered. It's subjective, based on my own research. I consulted university websites, talked to students and lab technicians, and even interviewed a few deans. It is, however, incomplete. If anything excites or concerns you, dig deeper yourself. 


Ecole de technologie superieure 

The teaching structure is traditional, but the culture is practical, since the school focuses on turning technologists into engineers. Students without a technology certificate do an extra year, giving them a condensed technologist's training. 

Professors have industry experience, and are more willing to trust students with technical assignments. ETS is known for its design teams, which win many competitions. Graduates are likely to be solid, classical engineers. 

Co-op: Mandatory three four-month internships Notable programs: Construction, operations and logistics, automated production, information technologies 

McGill University

McGill is extremely theoretical and I feel the school is coasting on its reputation. There is decent access to professors, but the administration and academic advisers are not helpful. The equipment is ancient and difficult to access, and there is inadequate support and training.

Due to its theoretical nature, McGill is considered strong in preparing students for graduate studies, but grad students use the scientific method. So if your goal is advanced studies in engineering, consider doing a pure science or engineering science degree first.

Co-op: Only in mining and materials engineering
Notable program: Agricultural engineering

Concordia University
Concordia provides many resources for mature students and continuing education, so scheduling is pretty flexible.

Programs are traditional; students say it can be difficult to access equipment. There are more technical elective credits than McGill, but, otherwise, the programs seem similar. Space Concordia, a student club, builds and sends satellites into space on a two-year cycle.
Co-op: Optional three four-month internships. Opportunities
are limited, and students have to find placements
if the school can't.
Notable program: Building engineering

Universite de Montreal's Ecole Polytechnique
Polytechnique is traditional and primarily theoretical, but is well-organized and equipped. It offers more tutorial time per course-an average of two hours, rather than one-with the idea that students should learn in school.

For those who want to continue in graduate studies, Polytechnique has an engineering physics program. It has a pure-science-like structure, covering broader topics and incorporating more intensive math derivations. Engineering physics offers an advantage over a pure-science program, because it is more difficult to be accredited as a professional engineer with a bachelor's degree.
Co-op: Mandatory four-month internship
Notable program: Aerospace engineering

Universlte de Sherbrooke
The electrical and computer engineering programs at U de S have no classes. Instead, every two weeks, a problem-designed to teach required concepts-is posed to students, and the teacher acts as an adviser as they research the answer. The six or seven problems a semester may be physical projects or on paper. After two weeks, students present solutions.

Each semester, those concepts are integrated into a project, which also teaches project management, communications and team work. Personal projects are encouraged and lab space is extensive.
Co-op: Optional five four-month internships

British Columbia

University of British Columbia

The UBC integrated engineering program combines electrical, mechanical and materials engineering. There are three year-long project courses, rather than a single final-year project. UBC's second year of mechanical engineering is progressive. Students learn the principles in an integrated manner, with all second-year courses consolidated into three theoretical and two practical courses taught sequentially. The school also offers engineering physics.

After a general first year, students are admitted to a specific program based on demand, their marks and a letter of intent. UBC supports its design teams with their own building. Labs are open for personal use. Co-op: Optional five four-month internships Notable program: Integrated engineering

Queen's University
Queen's is famous for its student culture, with large study groups and a Facebook page for each program and year. It also boasts the highest graduation rates in Canada, because struggling first-years are placed in a special stream to help them succeed.

From first year, students work on projects for local clients. Equipment is extensive. Those who pass first year courses are accepted into the program of their choice. Students planning on grad school should consider engineering physics, engineering chemistry, or the mathematics and engineering program.
Co-op: Optional, lasting 12 to 16 months
Notable programs: Engineering chemistry, mathematics
and engineering

University of Toronto
The U of T focuses primarily on theory. A grad told me its strength is preparation for graduate studies. Unlike McGill, it offers an engineering science program that allows specialization in several areas, including physics. Students can apply directly to the program they want, or do a general first year before choosing their program. They can form teams and pitch ideas to the Hatchery, an undergrad start-up incubator. The U of T offers job finding services to alumni.

Co-op: 600 required hours; optional 12- to 16-month professional

experience year

University of Waterloo
Although the curriculum is traditional, Waterloo encourages entrepreneurship through its start-up incubator, Velocity, and Watco, a commercialization program. 

The school doesn't allow part-time studies, and there are six mid-terms in five days every semester. Students must graduate within five years and are not allowed to deviate much from their stream. They always know where they rank within their program, because the registrar emails it to them privately. And because of co-op requirements, there are no summer breaks. I'd have concerns about mental health.

Shorter work terms mean students adapt to new environments and are exposed to more experiences, making them more marketable. It also forces them to perfect job-finding skills. Labs are accessible for personal projects. Students are directly accepted into the program of their choice in second year.
Co-op: Mandatory six four-month internships
Notable programs: Management, nanotechnology, and
systems design engineering

McMaster University
Engineering programs are traditional, but a former student told me his team independently built a drivable hot tub and motorized shopping cart. McMaster supports these activities, in part through its Gerald Hatch Centre for Engineering Experiential Learning. McMaster offers five-year programs, combining engineering with arts or management, and provides job-finding services to grads.

Co-op: Optional minimum of 12 months of internships
Specialty: The first two years of its bachelor of technology are completed at Mohawk College, while the final two years are done on campus. It's more hands-on, but graduates can't work as professional engineers.

Source: Maclean's 2016 College and University Programs Guide

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