Engineering workshops give hands-on experience

Annual rite of passage

(May 13, 1999, Gazette)

By James O'Brien

For some, crocuses herald the onset of spring. In Engineering, spring is announced by the sight of Term 2 students dashing around campus, clutching tape, engineers' levels and fieldbooks, learning the basics of surveying. At the same time in the welding shops on the first floor, students are running beads under the watchful eyes of experienced technicians, and in the electrical workshop participants grapple with wiring and printed circuit boards.

In the labs and classrooms, engineering students are absorbing the fundamentals of first aid, industrial health and safety, and a myriad of other subjects related to the practical side of engineering.

Each year spring sees another version of the annual engineering workshops. The brainchild of former faculty member Dr. Bob Dempster, the workshops have been running for about seven years in various forms. The aim has always been the same: to give students some hands-on experience in the practice of their profession.

Students choosing the mechanical workshop, for example, spend time in the machine shop making a toolmaker's clamp, disassemble and reassemble a lawnmower engine (a perennial favorite), and get a chance to practice welding and soldering.

Parallel workshops in the electrical discipline and the surveying field school (for those interested in civil engineering) feature instruction and practical exercises in applying the Canadian Electrical Code and solving survey problems.

On the academic calendar the workshops fall between the end of Term 2 exams and the students' first co-operative work experience.

Outside tech services welding shop, Kimberley Linehan, a Term 2 student hoping to enter the mechanical discipline, commented on the fact that the workshops come on the heels of exams.

"It's a lot more relaxing and we get to learn stuff that you probably wouldn't see until you went on your first work-term."

Student Valerie Loder reinforced an important professional component of the workshops with her comment: "It's hard to tell someone how to do something if you don't know how to do it yourself."

This professional aspect of the workshops isn't lost on Russ Callahan, Technical Services division manager (Engineering). Mr. Callahan cited the student's experience in the machine shop to describe a valuable practical lesson in production tolerances.

"It's a lot more work to machine something to a high tolerance, and it isn't always necessary. This is something they learn when they come down here that they can take with them."

Workshops also give the students an opportunity to work closely with the engineering technicians who support the research and teaching in the faculty.

"Basically it gives the students names and faces to come down and talk to," offered Jim Andrews, the welding supervisor. Mr. Andrews proudly characterized the "500 years of experience" in the shop as a tool that is available to the students, particularly during their Term 8 design projects.

The students also reported enjoying the overall experience.

"Sometimes you can learn more in one afternoon taking apart a lawnmower than you can in three weeks of classes," mused student Rob Moore.

There was certainly more than mere note-taking in evidence during the lawnmower engine exercise one recent afternoon. One pair of students experienced some difficulty restoring their engine. As they pored over the manual and searched for the source of an unusual noise, technicians Ron O'Driscoll and Bob Smith cajoled them and offered encouragement. When the source of the problem was located, Mr. Smith was quick to turn it into a learning experience, explaining that the blade of the lawnmower acts as more than a way of cutting grass.

"It actually serves as a flywheel or counterweight to the engine, helping it to turn."

As the machine roared to life, Mr. O'Driscoll ended the lesson by announcing, "And that is officially the end of your first year of engineering."