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!

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