Monthly Archives: March 2011

Engineering Excellence

Loud sounds of applause echoed across the downtown Marriot Hotel’s giant ballroom and overshadowed the presence of elegantly prepared dishes on the tables. The boldness of the colour red on flowers, dresses, accessories and sweaters hardly seemed noticeable as the delegates whole-heartedly put their hands together for those of engineering excellence. This was the night of Friday March 18th, where students, faculty members, and alumni of UBC engineering came to celebrate engineering excellence (the 2nd Annual Engineering Excellence Celebration).

I signed up to attend the event without knowing the context of the event itself. I heard the magic words “free 3-course meal”, and I cleared my Friday night schedule.

But the event gave me a lot more than just an epic combination of salad, pork eye rib, and blueberry topped cheesecake. It made me realize how valuable an engineering education is.

When I was in high school, I told my dad that I want to become a famous founder and CEO of a company leading the next generation technologies forward. Alongside my declaration of CEO-dream was my elaborate plans to graduate from the University of Waterloo (my undergrad), develop an epic product overnight and become a powerful young entrepreneur even Bill Gates would be scared of. I wanted to become the next big thing, and arrogantly rule the world with lots of money and power.

If I remember correctly, Ontario’s university application system allowed me to choose three programs without having to pay additional charges. In choosing the three, the first one was easy. I had the University of Waterloo in mind even before my family moved to Canada. But the other two wasn’t so easy, because I hadn’t planned on having a plan B and a plan C. My father, being an engineer himself, encouraged me to apply to a business program with the argument that engineering education isn’t the only way you can become a CEO of a tech company — part of his argument had to do with optimizing my path towards becoming tomorrow’s top CEO.

It turned out that I didn’t need a plan B and a plan C; I happily entered the Honours Mechatronics Engineering program at UWaterloo.

During the years of sharing boxes of cheap dry pizza with classmates and pulling all-nighters at basement-bound windowless classrooms, I didn’t really think about why an engineering education is to be valued other than the hard-numbered facts like the employment rate etc. But the speech by the award winners on that Friday night event in conjunction with their impressive listing of accomplishments made me realize something — that one thing I became used to and taken for granted from my engineering education is the lesson of humbleness.

In learning to make things work, solve technical problems, and tackle overwhelming challenges, I think we get used to the art of trying and trying again just to face failures every which way. You think it’s going to work, and you try, and it doesn’t work — the kind of days I have been having for the past couple of weeks. And you spend days and nights trying and failing… until… until it works! You never feel smart enough until that epic moment occurs. Even when you are gifted with the brief and precious winning moment, you know it’s not perfect and there’s another mountain to conquer. On top of that, the credit for these precious moments usually don’t go to an individual, because too many mountains can be (and usually are better) conquered by a team than by a person — i.e., we need to think hard before being able to say “I did it” and have it be 100% true. So we naturally get humbled with the knowledge that it’s not always perfect the first time, and that you can’t do it alone.

The things that the award winners have accomplished were really impressive, yet the sense of humbleness in their speeches was unmistakable. Quite memorably, Dr. Norman Epstein, who has held his faculty position at UBC since 1951 (even before my parents were born) contributing his life’s work in the field of chemical engineering, joked about his experience of being notified of the award, “Normally, the Dean doesn’t come to you. You go to the Dean. So I figured this must be really serious! …”

I don’t have the same money & power-lovin’ CEO dream from high school any more, and am not a CEO of any sort at all. But I now hold a much more obscure dream of contributing in the field of roboethics by bringing forth a positive social change, and am more than grateful that I got to do my MASc at UBC where I have been learning more than just robot dynamics and trajectory planning.

Alright, enough of this fluffy dream talk.

I didn’t get anything done last week, because all I have been doing was trying and failing. Time to get back out there and try some more. Cheers and hugs to those who are going through the same thing with their theses / projects!

Happy Birthday, Heather!

Today, March 10th, is a special day for Heather Gerrits, our Undergraduate Program Assistant at the department.

She is the lovely lady you’ll see first when you walk in through the door of CEME 1214.

What’s in the room? Well, CEME 1214 is the cosily lit office housing an army of the department’s student assistants, Jen Pelletier (the Undergraduate Affairs & Special Projects Manager), and of course, Heather.

It’s the place where you can feel the purple of WWEST (Westcoast Women in Engineering, Science & Technology) all around you, and also the place that reminds me of so many different department related events from the past including the IMECE 2010 (International Mechanical Engineering Congress & Exposition) conference – because Jen and Heather have always been there, holding down the fort. Anywhere, and everywhere.

So, if you’re a prospective student of UBC Mech, and haven’t met Heather already, you will get to know her (and Jen too, of course). They’re super friendly and helpful ladies who have answers to all my admin-related questions.

And I happen to have an awesome picture of the ladies from the NSERC Chair Launch event last semester where Dr. Elizabeth Croft was ‘knighted’ (there must be a proper term for it that I should know and use) as the NSERC Chair for Women in Science and Engineering for the BC and Yukon Region.

Far left is Heather, today’s birthday lady. To her right is Dr. Green (the Head of the department), Jen, and Dr. Croft (one of my supervisors).  I am sure more about these other individuals will make it to this blog later as I rushedly try to finish my thesis in time.

But for now,

Happy Birthday Heather! 😀

CPSC – an advertisement?

Hello there!

I have something to tell you that had you told me I would be saying this a year ago, I would have called you a liar!  Over the past month, my eyes have been opened to the awesome world of computer science.  Yes, you did read that right; I think computer science is in fact awesome.  Let me explain.

As I’ve probably mentioned in previous posts, I am taking a computer vision course this term.  In my undergrad I didn’t do very much programming at all, which explains my previous attitude towards the subject, and made signing up for this course a little intimidating.  But even though I’m pretty sure I’m spending about twice as long as anyone else on the assignments, when they’re done I have a working product that, at least in this course, does something that is (1) cool, and (2) would be useful in so many applications.

Now for the assignment that inspired this post:  We were given a few photos and told to write a program that would identify where the faces were.   Tons of software does this now (ie. Picasa and its creepy ability to not only identify faces, but who’s face if they have enough photos on there!), and better than at least my version is able to, but it was still pretty interesting to get an idea of how these programs go about doing this sort of thing.

Here is the result of my program on one of the pictures we were given:

It didn’t get all of them, but it didn’t do too bad either, and it wasn’t even really that hard!  Think about how many places you could use this!  If you wanted to track something, you could put some kind of  distinctive sticker on it (ie. on crash test dummies), and write a little program that would tell you where it is.  It would even work way better than the face detection program, since the sticker would always be the same (whereas each person’s face is different).

I know doing something like this is nothing new, but now its not just a “yeah, you can do that with software” thing, but a “I have an idea of how its actually done” thing.  Also, more importantly to me, know I would be able to make something like this happen if I had to …. with certain degree of accuracy….

Assignments like this are the completely unique thing about a computer science degree.  You would leave school with so much hands-on experience.  I can’t imagine getting the same kind of grasp of the material in any other field since you have to use what you’re learning and all for the cost of buying a computer.  Its too bad you can’t do this in engineering since its such a good way to learn, but alas, to buy the equipment to try out a lot of what you’re learning would cost a whole lot more than a computer.