A new type of engineer is needed to deal with the challenges of a rapidly changing world, and universities and faculties must urgently adapt their training to meet this demand, says the new head of Polytechnique Montreal.
Globalization, the digitization of the economy and the energy transition are bringing industrial and societal advances that require future engineers to be much more innovative, says Philippe A. Tanguy, the Polytechnique’s chief executive officer. Curriculums and teaching methods must shift radically in the next decade to include entrepreneurship, he notes, in order for engineering education – and engineers – to remain relevant.
“The pace of change is accelerating so quickly and we need to react fast,” says Dr. Tanguy, a physicist and chemical engineer whose career has included 25 years in academia as well as nine years leading the research division of Total SA, the global energy giant, before returning to Canada and Polytechnique in January. “We have to educate engineers to meet the needs of society.”
Technologies such as artificial intelligence and machine learning, digitalization and the Internet of Things are transforming the way that work is done and things are made, particularly through robotics and automation, he says. Engineers will be the ones designing these installations and controlling the resulting production.
We have to stop filling up brains with readymade stuff from textbooks. Students’ aspirations and intelligence require adapted teaching and more content than what we once received.— Philippe A. Tanguy, Chief Executive Officer, Polytechnique Montreal
“In this new era, high-level scientific and technical knowledge will still be required, but engineers will also need to have strong management skills,” explains Dr. Tanguy, a professor of chemical engineering and process engineering, particularly in the energy field. He worked at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Laval University in Quebec City and for 15 years in the Polytechnique’s department of chemical engineering, where he also held two research chairs. At Total in France and Germany, he held senior management positions that included being in charge of scientific affairs and academic partnerships. That position brought him to visit some 100 technical universities around the world, developing collaborations and exploring new models.
“It certainly broadened my scope,” he recalls, noting that co-operation and teamwork between academics, industry and government were especially critical in the open-innovation programs he was involved in, dealing with issues from security to operational excellence and cost-cutting. “I learned a lot.”
He says that graduating engineers have traditionally looked to work in large companies, but today they want to create their own jobs. A recent opinion poll taken at Polytechnique found that 73 per cent of first-year engineering students plan to become entrepreneurs.
“They’re 19 years old and they have that embedded in their minds. We have to answer to those desires. And this is very good for the country,” he says, because these “neo-engineers” will create new jobs for Canadians.
Training “technology entrepreneurs” means giving them the ingredients for starting and running companies. They will learn to manage teams, set up business plans and get involved in finance, strategy and human resources, he says. Technical universities offer some courses in these principles, for example Polytechnique features masters in entrepreneurship and technical management and has undertaken initiatives to develop all students’ entrepreneurial skills, but Dr. Tanguy feels that more is needed. “It’s really a question of scale,” he says, noting that most undergraduate programs are “locked up from the first course to the last” and offer “little room for manoeuvre.”
Dr. Tanguy believes that fostering creativity and helping students to “cultivate their audacity” especially has to happen in the classroom. “We have to stop filling up brains with ready-made stuff from textbooks. Students’ aspirations and intelligence require adapted teaching and more content than what we once received,” he says. “One way of making students think outside of the box is to change the way we teach them.”
Polytechnique has a teaching support centre and has chairs in the field. One essential element is acknowledging and catering to the way students think; for example, young people today tend to multitask and are simultaneously absorbing a stream of different information on radio, television, RSS feeds and conversations with friends.
“We have to adapt to this. Their concentration is less strong on some things, but they can focus on many ways of thinking,” says Dr. Tanguy, who suggests that students could learn by themselves, in groups, with the help of professors, rather than “being fed everything on a white board.” This sort of “self-learning” also sets engineers up for careers of continuous discovery, he notes.
Dr. Tanguy feels the Polytechnique also plays an important role in Montreal’s innovation ecosystem, with specialties such as big data and biomedical engineering. “More than ever, our institution is able to develop synergies with the most influential companies here.”
Meanwhile, he would like to see engineering faculties and universities remain strong in basic research, which could be lost with the ever-greater emphasis on applied programs. “We always hear that universities have to become much closer to industry, but they should not jeopardize their high-quality fundamental research. It shouldn’t be one or the other; it’s both.”
It’s important for engineers to work together, regardless of their disciplines, and to be socially responsible, he allows, noting that Polytechnique’s programming increasingly includes advanced thinking in areas such as urban planning, green materials and recycling. There are plans to go further and position the institution to deal with “grand challenges” like energy, health and safety. “We also need to explain to citizens the price we pay for technology,” he says. For example, while electric cars are meant to be “green,” their batteries use “dirty” mining processes for their materials, and a heavy carbon and water footprint is involved in their manufacturing.
Solutions for such pressing problems are being found around the world, Dr. Tanguy says. Polytechnique is significantly global, with 29 per cent of students (23 per cent of undergraduate students and 46 per cent of graduate students) as well as 50 per cent of faculty coming from outside of Canada. “But our influence on the international scale could be larger,” he comments. “Canada is extremely well considered worldwide; we are listened to. Polytechnique is an excellent engineering university, and we will make it a very large engineering university that’s recognized worldwide. It has all the potential.”
Dr. Tanguy has a 10-year vision to make Polytechnique more visible on the Canadian and international scenes. Much of this repositioning is expected to be achieved by 2023, when it turns 150 years old. “Strategic plans usually stay on the shelf; we want to make ours operational,” he says, noting that everyone there needs to work together to achieve the changes necessary.
“We must not waste time,” he adds. “I am convinced that by mobilizing the collective intelligence of our community, we will make Polytechnique a great reference for those who invent the world of tomorrow.”
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