The Life of an Engineering Student: A Close-Knit Community Embraces the Hard-Working Stereotype

The Life of an Engineering Student: A Close-Knit Community Embraces the Hard-Working Stereotype

By Lawrence Neal Garcia and Jenny Tan

Originally published in The Ubyssey.

Engineers at UBC can easily be spotted with their bright red letterman jackets, typically covered with various patches. Photo Carter Brundage/The Ubyssey

Engineers at UBC can easily be spotted with their bright red letterman jackets, typically covered with various patches. Photo Carter Brundage / The Ubyssey

An egg-shaped race car zooms by the Engineering Design Centre — or EDC, a breath-saving acronym engineering students are grateful for — and executes a fluid U-turn. The rumbling motor breaks the Saturday slumber and the typically sleepy air of an empty campus is notably absent from the cluster of buildings on Point Grey’s south end. A disposable water bottle, perhaps a fuel tank of some sort, is attached to the back of the race car. The driver whoops as she zooms back through the alleyway. A teammate watches in satisfaction and follows the car along the lane, exchanging congratulatory remarks with the driver.

Building a community

The EDC bustles with activity. Its concrete floor and whitewashed walls lend a raw industrial feel to the building, preparing entrants for the nature of the work within. Machines line the inside of the “competition space,” the area where vehicles in various stages of completion await hours more of sweaty wrenching. The tall glass windows and high ceilings add an air of sophistication and the soft red cushions and communal tables create a comfortable sense of welcome — quite the achievement for what is essentially a factory.

A student in a forest-green shirt sits by himself at the edge of a wooden table at the atrium’s centre, but he’s not alone for long. A friend comes by and soon they are talking about what they’ll be majoring in. In the next few hours, he’ll be joined by a stream of familiar faces — an occurrence typical of the space, even on a weekend.

Articulate and confident, Rory Smith is perhaps not what some would think of when they picture a typical engineer. As a second-year mechanical engineering student — “I’m in Mech 2,” he explains to fellow engineers — the concrete applicability of the field had him hooked early.

“I don’t need to have a hammer and a nail and hand tool,” Smith said, “but I wanted to do something … tangible and physical”.

Smith hints at another draw of the program that engineers only find when they enter it.

“I’ve seen the same 30 people for the last four weeks, nine hours a day. It’s very easy to build relationships.” He laughs and adds lightheartedly that such a situation is “not necessarily negative or positive.”

The sheer amount of time engineers spend working with the same group of people is remarkable. Smith will continue to see the same 30 people nine hours a day for the duration of his time at UBC. The community bonding from that much time with a small group of peers is not insignificant.

Social dynamics

Chelsea Scheffel and Janice Savage, second-year electrical engineering students in the biomedical option, know something about spending a lot of time with the same people. With only 24 students in their biomedical option, they will have the majority of their classes with the same cohort for the entirety of their degrees.

Women in engineering are a rare breed. The men interviewed for this article estimated that the female-to-male ratio in engineering is one to 10.

But Scheffel and Savage both saw the gender makeup as more balanced.

“About one to four,” Savage guessed. Scheffel nodded.

Perhaps their answer is indicative of the equitable treatment they say they receive in the faculty despite the gender ratio. When asked whether the gender makeup had any impact on their degree experience, both women said it didn’t.

“Engineers are welcoming,” Savage said.

When asked if they were ever reluctant to ask males for help with assignments or vice versa, there was a long pause, as if the possibility had never even occurred to them.

“Well, guys ask for help too,” Scheffel answered. “Different people need help in different subjects, so you balance each other out.”

“It’s just this feeling [of community]. Maybe because we all have that small piece of geekiness — some people have a bigger piece. And that just matches with all of us. Maybe it’s like we just gel. We have that piece of the puzzle.”
— Chelsea Scheffel, second-year electrical engineering student

As with any faculty, stereotyping engineering is inevitable. But the generalizations engineering students say they face aren’t necessarily negative.

In fact, Scheffel joined Engineering partially because she felt that she fit the mould of a stereotypical engineer.

“The engineers, we kind of have this stereotype that we’re really quiet and focused, and I kind of feel like I fit in with that stereotype.”

But, as good sense would predict, engineers can be found all along the spectrum of personalities.

“We have the extremes,” Scheffel said. “We have the people who are party animals, and then we have the people who study all the time, and there’s the middle ground where there’s half and half.”

What remains consistent, however, is the strong sense of community.

So what is it about the engineering faculty that cultivates this sense of community that UBC as a whole tends to lack? Standard timetables, more common in engineering than in other faculties, certainly help. The proximity of the engineering buildings and seeing familiar faces during classes and in hallways is also another key. Various social events for students, a regular occurrence around the engineering faculty, may be part of the answer too.

After two weeks of frosh and a slew of barbecues and socials throughout the year, many engineers look forward to E-Week or, as the Engineering Undergraduate Society website puts it, “the only week that really matters.”

With everything from E-Ball soccer to the annual engineers’ ball, the week is perhaps the most important social event in the faculty. In addition, the academic workload of the degree offers a surprising amount of insight into the cultivation of community.

Studying in groups is a common occurrence, lending the engineering common spaces a bustling sense of purpose. Shared classes required for engineers in different departments or even different years also help cement a sense of camaraderie.

Scheffel thinks nothing of asking upper-years in the hallways for help with homework. Engineers seem to tackle school together, collectively pushing through the barriers of school.

These aspects can only explain so much. Even for Scheffel and Savage, there’s still another community bond they can’t quite put their finger on.

“It’s just this feeling,” said Scheffel. “Maybe because we all have that small piece of geekiness — some people have a bigger piece. And that just matches with all of us. Maybe it’s like we just gel. We have that piece of the puzzle.”

Getting technical

Despite the importance engineers attach to their community, other students associate engineering mostly with its infamously heavy and technical workload. But for some, it simply comes with the territory.

“In order to properly be a qualified engineer,” Smith points out matter-of-factly, “there are things that you need to know, and whether or not they’re hard is immaterial.”

The necessity of the technical focus of the degree may be indisputable, but the view of an engineering degree as less well-rounded and lacking emphasis in the arts and other fields of study has some grounding in facts. Outside of 18 “complementary studies” credits in the degree, little room is left for non-technical courses.

“But I think [the lack of well-roundedness] is the same on the reverse side,” points out Edwin Chen, a fifth-year engineering physics student. He noted that other faculties aren’t expected to study engineering courses either. He makes a good point, as the minimum science credit requirements of other faculties, such as in Arts, are what their title suggests: minimal.

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“I don’t think there’s any way around [the lack of course diversity],” said Chen, who will have reached over 180 credits when he graduates in May, almost all of them from technical engineering courses. “It’s inevitable because as an engineer you need to know so much technical stuff, that you can’t … study everything.”

With all this classroom time dedicated to technical study, this brings into question the availability of opportunity for engineering students to engage with philosophical questions common to college twenty-somethings.

For Chen, personal reflection is not a matter of being in a particular faculty.

“I think as a human being you will just think about it,” he said. “It’s inevitable. You will just think about who you are, and what you are doing and what the meaning of life is. These are questions that everyone will somehow have to think about and answer in their [lives], and I think that this is true to every engineer.”

Chen talked about the environments in which he tends to reflect: on his travels, during his alone time, listening to music — not necessarily in a classroom.

But if all these questions can be answered outside of the classroom, what then does that say about the value of a non-technical degree such as a BA?

Chen paused, reflecting on the question.

“I have total respect for people who are really doing serious things in Arts programs,” he said. “I think they are contributing to this society, there’s no doubt [of that].”

‘Life’ outside engineering

Chassis of cars from previous years line the walls. The UBC Formula team’s workspace is surprisingly neat, given the sheer amount of equipment in it. A xylophone of wrenches, arranged according to size, hang against an ocean-blue tool board. Like an overseer, a straw doll in a red-blue dress perches up top on a high corner, her bonnet shading her eyes from the flourescent glare. A sleek black race car shell is the focal point of the room surrounded by the 10 or so students bustling around the workspace.

Eric Thibault absentmindedly runs his hands along a steering wheel. It will find its home on the car the Formula UBC team will race at an international competition in Nebraska in June 2014.

Marko Lolic explains that the paddle-shifting mechanism on this year’s steering wheel allows the driver to clutch in and shift gears without taking her hands off the wheel. Given that Formula One cars can easily reach up to 320 kilometres an hour, it’s a feature that anyone who has driven a standard transmission vehicle would appreciate.

The fourth-year mechatronic engineers look at each other when asked how many hours they spend working on the car each week on top of schoolwork. “25 to 30?” Thibault guesses.

“Some kids may go home and learn how to program a microcontroller on their own time, as nerdy as it is, but still, that’s what they like to do. [Engineering] is one of the more easily applicable degrees.”
— Marko Lolic, member of UBC Formula

The easy camaraderie between the Thibault and Lolic is clear as they expand on and finish each other’s thoughts almost seamlessly. The two are asked point blank: do they have a “life” outside of engineering?

Thibault laughs.

“We do and we don’t,” he said.

Lolic interjects, clearly disagreeing with the image of the one-track engineer.

“Well, it depends on what you mean by ‘life,’” he says. “I think we do this because we’re committed to what we do.”

Lolic expanded on this point.

“Some kids may go home and learn how to program a microcontroller on their own time, as nerdy as it is, but still, that’s what they like to do,” he said. “[Engineering] is one of the more easily applicable degrees.

“It’s not like [if] I’m a doctor,” Thibault said with a laugh, “I’m going to go carve up my cat.”

Engineers: made, or born?

Chen paused when asked if he would choose the 180-credit engineering physics if he had the chance to do it all over again.

“I really like having a general sense of what society … is built on,” he said, referring to the knowledge of the engineering principles of modern technology. “Of course I survived … and I’m happy with the result. [But] if you’d shown me the typical day I would have for the next three, four years, I probably wouldn’t do it.”

Lolic, his hands resting lightly on the workbench behind him, addressed a similar point.

“There are some kids who don’t like engineering even though they’re in the program … but I think most of us are here because we love what we do.”

Did he know that he was going to be an engineer when he was growing up? Lolic laughed.

“I had no idea what I wanted to do after high school … but now I know that engineering is exactly what I want to do. I wouldn’t want to do anything else.”

This feature is the third in a series on academics at UBC. The first two were on Arts degrees and Sauder students.

Photos by Carter Brundage/The Ubyssey