Students in York University’s engineering program might be forgiven for thinking they’ve walked into a brash young startup or a Silicon Valley technology company rather than a stodgy school campus when they begin classes this month.
Wood floors, primary colours, whiteboards everywhere and not a single lecture hall – the new Bergeron Centre for Engineering Excellence packs all the hallmarks of a Google or Facebook operation, and purposely so.
The oblong, 16,000-square-metre building, constructed at a cost of $69-million, is a key pillar of the Toronto university’s attempt to align higher education more closely with the business world, or at least with what engineering students can expect to encounter once they graduate.
It’s part of a complete overhaul of the department that started in 2012, when York officials began implementing a plan to better compete with other universities in Ontario.
“We found that we needed to create a new type of engineering school,” says Janusz Kozinski, dean of the Lassonde School of Engineering, now housed in the Bergeron Centre. “There was no need for us to mimic what our colleagues from [University of Toronto] or Waterloo or others were doing. We wanted to create something different for the 21st century.”
The crux of the new concept was “renaissance engineering,” which involved linking the school with York’s business and law programs.
With the understanding that many engineering graduates start their own companies after graduating, officials decided that students should also be able to take classes at the Schulich School of Business and Osgoode Hall Law School.
The way that core engineering classes were taught was also revamped. Rather than having students attend lectures and then do work at home, the reverse was implemented. Now, they watch lectures online and come to class to work on projects collectively.
Students might watch a video of a professor explaining how to make robots, for example, then come to class and, in small groups, build them and have them compete in races.
Classroom structure had to align with that flip, so large rooms in the new building were rejected in favour of smaller, more intimate areas.
The Bergeron Centre features numerous small labs, while tables and chairs are also strewn throughout the corridors so that students and teachers can engage in impromptu sessions whenever the mood strikes. It’s another feature borrowed from Silicon Valley tech companies.
Student common areas, including an experiment-friendly “anarchist lab” where faculty aren’t allowed, are situated around the perimeter of the building, while staff offices huddle on the inside.
Professors initially weren’t too happy when they found out their offices were going to be windowless and smaller, but they’ve since warmed to the idea of getting out into the common areas to interact with students more.
“It was problematic at the beginning because for professors, their offices are their castles,” Mr. Kozinski says. “But now they love it.”
The school also features a “high-bay materials lab” – a building within a building where civil engineering students can test substances and structures. The giant concrete room, which is effectively insulated from the rest of the building, can be used to simulate earthquakes and temperature extremes.
“If somebody were to build one of these, they’d probably do it as a standalone building,” says Paul Stevens, senior principal at ZAS Architects, the Toronto-based firm that designed the Bergeron Centre. “But we thought it was very important that the hands-on learning that engineers would experience in the future should be fully integrated within the building itself.”
The school’s focus on creating a more startup-like environment has attracted interest from elsewhere, with officials from the University of Western Ontario in London, McMaster University in Hamilton and the University of Utah visiting recently to pick up tips, Mr. Kozinski says.
The Bergeron Centre will soon be followed by another new building that will house new chemical and bioengineering programs, both with a target start date of September, 2018. York hopes the new programs will help attract more women to engineering, to make up for the huge gender gap in the field.
Canadian universities’ engineering programs are averaging only about 17 per cent female students. York was at about that level last year before it formally set a goal of gender equity by 2020.
The ratio is at about 24 per cent now, Mr. Kozinski says.
The key to reaching the goal, he adds, isn’t about excluding male applicants, but rather creating more opportunities for women.
The nearer-term project, however, is to implement yet another Silicon Valley-like feature into the Bergeron Centre: nap rooms.
“Students asked for them,” Mr. Kozinski says, “so we’re going to give it to them.”