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Rising to the challenge: U of T Engineering dean reflects on COVID-19 and next steps

(photo by Daria Perevezentsev)

A lot of adjectives have been used to describe the year 2020 – unprecedented, unusual, challenging – but Christopher Yip, the dean of the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering, opts for a different word: inspiring.

“What I saw across our faculty was people rising to the challenge,” he says. “That innovative spirit is what engineering is all about and I think many of the creative solutions we developed will still be valuable when the pandemic is over.”

Writer Tyler Irving recently caught up with Yip to reflect on the past few months get his thoughts on the year ahead for U of T Engineering.


How has COVID-19 changed the focus of research at U of T Engineering?

Our researchers are amazing. They developed models to understand the spread of the virus, created new anti-viral materials to protect people and shared their expertise around building ventilation and simulation of health-care scenarios.

Going forward, engineering innovation will impact how we optimize freight transport in an era where so much is being delivered online or how we deploy our health-care resources. It will also help address pre-existing challenges highlighted by the pandemic, such as how to deliver better telecom in rural areas and how to build up the infrastructure for manufacturing bioproducts such as vaccines and pharmaceuticals.

How will engineering education change as a result of the past year’s challenges?

Everybody – instructors, TAs, students, me – wants to return to in-person learning as soon as it is safe to do so. But over the past year, a lot of work has gone into creating meaningful online learning experiences and I think that will still be useful in the future.

For example, we now have a rich library of video lectures that are ideal for use in a “flipped classroom” scenario. In this model, students aren’t sitting in a lecture hall listening to a professor talk; they have done that already by watching the videos ahead of time. Instead, they are using their time in class to work together on problem sets, try experiments and ask questions of the professor and each other.

This model also allows more time for lab experiments, demos, field trips and other things we want to do more of.

U of T Engineering is known for its commitment to developing global perspectives. How could that look in the future?

We obviously want to get back to providing opportunities for students to travel around the world through research exchanges, PEY Co-op placement abroad and capstone projects with international partners. I hope one day all of our students will get at least one global experience by the time they graduate.

But new models are emerging, such as the innovative InVEST program championed by Assistant Professor Elham Marzi, which enables students to collaborate virtually with peers from other institutions around the world. That’s a great way to get a feel for what it’s like to work in a team of people who have different backgrounds without having to ship somebody across an ocean.

And of course, Toronto itself is home to communities from all over the world. I think we can leverage those to find out how the new technologies we are working on could resonate overseas.

This year has been challenging for mental health. How will U of T Engineering support that going forward?

Our students really miss being able to talk to a friend after class, saying “I didn’t understand that lecture at all, did you?” and hearing, “Yeah, let’s try and figure it out together.”

Obviously, we want to bring that back, but are also enhancing our resources with respect to mental health in general. One of the things we’ve done is just create more spaces to talk, like the Dean’s World Tour we held during the fall break.

We’re going to continue to listen to what students are telling us in terms of workload and assessments, trying to reduce the stress they feel while keeping our programs rigorous.

What about equity, diversity and inclusion?

Diversity makes us better engineers. We’re about to launch a new initiative designed to improve inclusion and access pathways for Black and Indigenous students, and are partnering with universities across the country to advance equity at our schools, in academia and across the engineering profession. We’re also working closely with both undergraduate and graduate students to reinforce that commitment to equity, diversity and inclusion at every level.

We know that we still need to work on having a more inclusive environment inside engineering. We will build on the suite of programs and resources we currently have in place and listen to what the community is telling us.

Any final thoughts?

It’s tempting to think of this as a year when we all pushed pause, but here at U of T Engineering we never did that. We kept going, finding new and creative ways to apply our expertise. That’s going to serve us well as we start to spin back up.

All that said, I can’t wait to get back on campus. There is no substitute for just dropping in on people to see what they’re up to. That’s what energizes me and it’s going to be great to have it back.

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