How much would you trust a software engineer who’s never programmed before?
Maybe they’ve written a couple of papers about programming, or discussed programming approaches with some well-qualified people, or observed simulations to replicate the experience of programming. Perhaps they have an official piece of paper showing they know something about programming. But they’ve never actually programmed, and it might have been years since they even touched a computer.
For most people, the idea is completely ludicrous. This hypothetical student is completely unprepared and unqualified to be a software engineer. They might point to a very shiny piece of paper, certified by a trustworthy establishment, that suggests they know something about software engineer. After all, they don’t just hand out to diplomas to everyone. But we all know that a sheet of paper is just that; a sheet of paper. If you can’t do the things it says on the paper, well you might as well use it as kindling.
Thankfully no software engineer is going to emerge from software engineering without programming, a skill most think is essential for software design. After all, computers are conveniently portable and can communicate with one another from 10 meters apart as easily as if that distance was 1000 kilometers. Other branches of engineering are not so lucky.
How does a student learn to analyze material hardness when the material is in Waterloo, and the student is in Saskatchewan? How do students assemble and test robots when the equipment costs thousands of dollars, and they might have access to a 1990’s Lego Mindstorm if they’re lucky? How can students have a coherent group meeting when the members are scattered over shaky Wi-Fi connections and easily ignored Zoom calls?
No, watching videos of bored T.A.s doing things effortlessly is nowhere near actually doing those things oneself. Students are surely not going to learn how to operate an electron microscope through virtual osmosis, are they? They’re not going to learn how to become an effective team player by muting annoying group members and sending passive-aggressive Google docs invites. This is not what we, the students, need. It is a paltry imitation of what we deserve from such a fine academic institution.
Now, there is a worldwide pandemic going on at the moment, that we must assiduously seek to subdue. Human lives are not a matter to be taken lightly, under any circumstances, and it was commendable when the university sent students home during the winter, spring, and fall sessions when so little was known about the virus. However, it has been half a year, and we know so much more about Covid-19, and the rest of the world has changed as a result. Surfaces were initially believed to be a large source of transmission, but further research has proved that with proper sanitation, the risk is actually quite low.
Social distancing and mask-wearing have been proven to decrease the likelihood of transmission. As a consequence, in Ontario, most of the province has re-opened. Virtually every in-person business is opened again, from nail salons to restaurants to bank branches. Even elementary schools and high schools have reopened, many with even greater class sizes than pre-pandemic levels. You can’t tell me that it’s safe to stuff 30 snot-nosed five-year-olds with no understanding of basic hygiene into a poorly ventilated classroom, but you can’t bring a small group of university students for a lab.
Obviously, no one is advocated for a full return to pre-pandemic procedures at the university, lectures of 100 students are easily supplemented with video lectures. You lose a few class participants, but lectures were never that interactive before. In fact, you can argue lectures aren’t even the core of the university experience. If post-secondary could be reduced to watching a series of videos, then we’d just need a library subscription and get a few audiobooks (I digress, education institutions are too ingrained as signaling mechanisms in our society to be replaced), not a whole institution. The core of the university experience is using the knowledge and skills we have to create. To investigate complex problems, design innovative solutions, and explore limitless possibilities. A 2015 MacBook in your parent’s basement defines limited, not limitless.
Labs, discussion groups, and design projects are the backbone of higher education. They elevate our understanding and hone our critical thinking. If these experiences are executed poorly, students become nothing more than expensive file folders of half-learned information. Resources and spontaneous social interactions are irreplaceable for these experiences. There is no way to properly engage with resources hidden in abandoned storage lockers, especially when most students are trapped in an environment designed to maximize sleep and comfort.
These educational modes also feature much smaller learning group sizes, very convenient for a pandemic. The university has hundreds of rooms and hundreds of hours to schedule the appropriate amount for all students. Students arrive in a small group of about 20 for their sessions, do their assigned tasks, and leave.
Some might say that with a group of 20 for each class, and five classes; that’s exposure to a hundred people, a larger circle than public health agencies are recommending. For engineering students though, most, if not all classes are identical for each cohort of each program. Thus, a student can have be in a group of 20 students that rotates to every one of their classes. Additionally, you can further break down these groups into four-person lab pods that must social distant from other pods and the instructors. Coupled with a mandatory mask policy, and you can ensure an acceptable level of safety.
Now you might agree that this sounds reasonable, that there is a way to safely re-open parts of the university to ensure students have the most fulfilling experience. The Waterloo Department of Athletics and Recreation also agrees. They allow students to come in for 45-minute sessions, that they can participate in maskless, and is followed by 15 minutes of cleaning. Surely if these regulations are good enough for one department, that fulfills something only tangentially related to the “academic mission”, they are good enough for the “raison-d’être” departments of the university. Though they did announce that some labs may proceed in person, they said it would replicate the fall term, but for engineering that only gave some cohorts from one department the chance to engage in person.
The McDonalds workers are out flipping burgers, the barbers are trimming everyone’s hair, but university students are left at home to…twiddle their thumbs? Atlantic Canadian universities are doing it, American universities are doing it, why won’t Waterloo do it? Students deserve a real education, and the only way to do that is to allow in-person components. We can’t afford to lose a generation to half-baked ideas and basement burnout.
Edited October 20th to remedy some typos. We are deeply sorry for this mistake.