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October 24, 2002 More grad students boost ENCS faculty's research profile



by Barbara Black

Senior administrators in the Faculty of Engineering and Computer Science must have gone to their annual two-day retreat this week in a mood of satisfaction. A decade after the 1992 Fabrikant tragedy, the faculty has been thoroughly renewed, with so many positive changes that its profile and mood are almost unrecognizable.

One of the most striking examples is the unprecedented number of PhD students. There are now 250, which is a record for Concordia’s engineering school, and this number may reach 300 next year. According to Georgios Vatistas, Associate Dean (Graduate Programs, Research), this was the happy result of careful planning and a long-term vision, for which he gives credit to Dean Nabil Esmail.

“He could see the whole picture,” Vatistas said enthusiastically. “He could see that the way to rebuild was to enhance our academic profile.”

It was a bottom-up process that started with a push to increase undergraduate enrolment, which has almost doubled over the decade, to 3,799. Not only did the higher enrolment increase revenue by increasing the per-student operating grant, but it planted seeds for the future. Vatistas calls this cohort “the incubator”; from their ranks will come many of ENCS’s master’s students, and ultimately, their doctoral students.

The best U.S. engineering schools are made up of about half undergraduates, half graduate students, and ENCS is coming close to that ideal, with 37 per cent of its total enrolment in graduate programs, based on a head-count.

Improving the academic profile includes a renewal of the curriculum. Dean Esmail chose to focus on information technology, a popular choice for the times and a priority for the Quebec government. IT, including the first software program of its kind, became an interdisciplinary focal point around which much of the faculty renewal would be based.

In addition, the influx of new professors served to enrich the curriculum, particularly at the graduate level. “It was very important that the new hires fit with the blueprint, with the academic vision,” Vatistas recalled. “The new people were handpicked by excellent committees, and the dean insisted that they be both good researchers and good educators.”

They didn’t have to have a history of NSERC grants, he added, but they had to have that potential. “We knew we would have to help them in the begnning with start-up grants, and the dean found the money.”

New researchers need new equipment, and that’s where the plans for the new high-rise engineering complex come in. Despite the size of the building — 16 storeys — there are virtually no undergraduate classrooms in the building now under construction at Guy and Ste. Catherine Sts. Instead, it is filled with state-of-the-art research facilities and spaces for graduate students to meet and work on projects. Undergraduate classes will be conducted in the renovated Hall Building.

Integrated renewal also included redesigning the academic substructure — chairs and academic advisors — who are key to keeping everyone focused on the same goals.

Vatistas, who had been Associate Dean of Graduate Studies in the early ’90s, was brought back to the Faculty as Associate Dean, responsible for graduate students and research. He undertook a study of the existing situation for graduate students, and discovered that many of them were in dire financial straits, having to take outside work that cut into the quality of their academic work.

“Dean Esmail suggested that we top up their income to $17,500 a year, mainly by providing more financial support to their supervisors’ research projects, which would trickle down to them, and make us more competitive,” Vatistas said. He also made personal contact with the graduate students, to make sure they felt valued and were coping with their financial constraints.
Among the new faculty, Vatistas said, he and the dean identified leaders, young professors who show potential as academic administrators.

“We have to empower them by giving them the opportunity to make decisions that conform to the overall vision,” Vatistas said. “By doing so, we are starting the process towards the transformation of the culture inside the Faculty. After all, these are the people that will take the helm of the Faculty, and it is logical that the transition is as smooth as possible.”

Some of the senior new faculty members were attracted from other institutions, Vatistas said with a smile, like Professor Rachida Dssouli, of Electrical and Computer Engineering, and others like Paula Wood-Adams, of Mechanical and Industrial Engineering.

Vatistas said that there’s also been a seachange in what is expected of full-time faculty members. “They should be teaching the fundamental courses,” he said. “I do that myself, partly because it’s challenging, and partly because you want them to soar like an eagle, not peck like a chicken. If you give them a good grounding, some of them will go on to become graduate students, and the others will be ready to be among the select few in industry.”

We will always need part-time faculty, he added, because they bring the real-world dimension that students need, but full-time faculty are the core of the educational process.

“We feel we are doing that now — producing leaders in the form of well-rounded, knowledgeable graduates. And part of the reason is the emphasis we have put on bridges to industry. Innovations like CIADI (the Concordia Institute for Aerospace Design and Innovation), CIISE (Concor-dia Institute of Informatio Systems Engineering) and the CRIAQ (Consortium Research Industrial Aerospace Québec) not only save industry money by training students in the workplace, but they save the university money by providing specialized facilities, and give researchers and their graduate students the chance to work on real R & D projects.”

Vatistas added that interdisciplinarity is the key to university education in this new century. For engineering education at Concordia, the challenge will be to extend that drive beyond information technology and into the pure sciences — physics, mathematics, chemistry and biology — where it can produce some exciting applications for society at large.