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Growth, leadership and innovation: Why the Gina Cody School is turning heads

Fast-growing engineering school succeeds with Next-Gen approach to burgeoning field.
October 11, 2019
By Joseph Leger

Open-Source Cyber Fusion Centre Student population has nearly doubled in engineering and computer science in the last decade.

In an era of smart cities, smart phones and smart cars, our world is increasingly reliant on engineers and computer scientists. Technology merges seamlessly into our environment, often invisible to the eye, yet nonetheless shaping and altering the way we live.

Most of us would be hard-pressed to find any area of our daily lives untouched by technology — which might explain why the Gina Cody School of Engineering and Computer Science (GCS) is Concordia’s fastest growing faculty.

With roughly 10,500 students — 5,780 undergraduate and 4,700 graduate students —GCS’s enrolment has nearly doubled since 2009. It is now one of Canada’s largest such faculties.

“It’s no secret that there’s a huge labour market demand for engineers and computer scientists at the moment,” says Anne Whitelaw, BA 87, MA 92, PhD 96, Concordia’s interim provost and vice-president Academic. “And we are seeing that demand translate into exciting growth in the Gina Cody School.”

While the labour demands are undeniable, GCS’s growth outpaces other Quebec universities.

“As a top, young university, we’re increasingly top-of-mind for aspiring engineers,” says Graham Carr, Concordia’s interim president. “That’s a great position to be in because it also allows us to become more mindful, more deliberate about how and where we want to grow GCS in the future.”

It is a sentiment echoed by Whitelaw. “It’s critical that the education we offer is of the highest caliber — and to do that we have to be smart,” she says. “The faculty has been very strategic in its growth and has focused on research at the master’s and PhD level — which aligns with the university’s strategic direction to double our research.”

This begs the question: what is happening at Concordia, and in particular the Gina Cody School, that has so many people excited?

Focusing on next-generation technologies

“Engineering and computer science are leading fields across the world and the demand for highly qualified personnel is great,” says Amir Asif, dean of the Gina Cody School. “However, GCS is the only school of its kind in Quebec that has expanded so much in the past 10 years.”

“There are a number of contributing factors to our rapid growth. I believe a big part of our success can be attributed to our efforts to introduce programs focused on next-generation concepts and technologies.”

Asif points to the new aerospace engineering program, which is only the second of its kind in Quebec and the first at an English university, and the recently launched Master in Engineering with Engineering Management Option.

The latter is an interdisciplinary collaboration between the Gina Cody School and the John Molson School of Business, aimed at helping engineers who aspire to move into management-level positions to acquire business skills.

Providing students with courses and programs tailored for a rapidly changing digital era is no easy feat. With technology emerging, evolving and often quickly becoming obsolete, the challenge is to prepare students for the world as it is, or as it will be when they enter the workplace, and not as it was five years ago.

The Gina Cody School not only manages to keep up, its courses and programs are often ahead of their time.

For example, the faculty recently established the Department of Chemical and Materials Engineering, positioning itself as a leader in advanced manufacturing, clean energy and sustainability.

“Our undergraduate programs are modern and we maintain them with regular changes,” says Christopher Trueman, professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering and former GCS associate dean of Academic Affairs. “We offer up to date options, such as avionics in electrical engineering, biological and biomedical programs in computer engineering and aerospace in mechanical engineering, in addition to the bachelor of engineering in aerospace.”

Chemical and Materials Engineering Chemical and Materials Engineering facilities

Experiential learning and industry experience

Beyond the exciting programs and courses, Asif says the faculty puts a lot of emphasis on experiential and hands-on learning.

“Almost all of our courses have a lab component where students can put theoretical concepts to the test,” says Asif. “Plus, we facilitate industrial placements for our students with the eventual goal that all of our undergraduate students will have one work placement upon graduating.”

One popular feature of the university’s focus on experiential learning is Concordia’s co-op program. Students enrolled in a co-op program divide their time between the classroom and a job placement in their field.

“These programs offer students the chance to gain industry-specific work experience so that when they graduate they are ready for the workplace,” says Anjali Agarwal, GCS associate dean, Student Academic Services and Equity, Diversity & Inclusion. “When potential students visit, they get very excited when they see our state-of-the-art labs and hear about our many experiential learning opportunities.”

GCS also provides internships and other work-placement opportunities through programs such as the Concordia Institute of Aerospace Design & Innovation.

These experiences help equip students with the tools and knowledge they need and in turn make the students more attractive to employers.

Flexibility and openness is key

Concordia has a well-earned reputation for being a student-first university. Dating back to its two founding institutions, Sir George Williams University and Loyola College, Concordia has a history of offering night classes and access to higher education to allow students to complete their degrees while working.

This student-centric ideal remains a Concordia cornerstone.

“We give everyone a chance — it’s our mission,” says Nancy Acemian, senior lecturer in the Department of Computer Science and Software Engineering. “The flexibility here is one of the things I love about Concordia. We offer evening classes and online classes and we are catering to the needs of today. We are very open and we try to do everything we can to help our students succeed.”

Christopher Trueman believes word of GCS’ openness and focus is spreading and driving growth.

“We have a reputation for helping students and for being willing to accommodate their needs,” says Trueman. “Many of our students have jobs and our programs are structured to permit students to work a considerable number of hours and also maintain their grades.”

“And we are fair to students. We are willing to offer students a second chance when they have difficulties. So the word gets around that Concordia has excellent programs and is fair.”

Mengting Zhao, a fourth year PhD candidate, says she is thrilled with choosing the Gina Cody School. “I'm very, very proud of my choice of coming here,” she says.

“At Concordia, I have the freedom to do what I'm interested in and we have flexible working hours. If today I'm not in a good mood to study, maybe some paperwork at home is acceptable. I can come to work when I think I'm feeling creative and I can concentrate on it.”

Being attentive to the changing needs of students has allowed GCS to develop a curriculum designed for a digital world.

According to Acemian, the goal is to move towards a blended pedagogy of online courses and programs and in-person classes. This allows students the greatest flexibility to customize their education to fit their needs.

“Online courses may seem like a small thing, but they make a big difference,” says Acemian. “And it’s not just a question of taking an in-person class, recording it and plunking it online. We are taking the time to develop them properly to make sure the technology is supporting the pedagogy and working for the professors and the students.”

 Nancy Acemian “We give everyone a chance — it’s our mission,” says Nancy Acemian, senior lecturer in the Department of Computer Science and Software Engineering.

Student-driven innovation

Award-winning student groups and societies are an important draw for prospective students; the Gina Cody School has no shortage of those.

There’s Space Concordia, a student-run group that recently won a $15,000 second- place prize in the first stage of the Base 11 Space Challenge — an international student competition to design, build and launch a rocket into space (the grand prize is $1 million).

Or HackConcordia, a student group that organizes ConUHacks, an annual 24-hour hackathon at Concordia. This year, the group’s fourth event, attracted more than 700 participants from between 40 to 50 universities — making it one of the largest such events in the world.

“We empower our student societies to receive or get trained in what I call co-curricular activities,” says Asif. “These activities are not assessed academically, but they allow students to participate in competitions and events around the world — and get international recognitions and awards.”

For one student, joining the Concordia Society for Civil Engineering made a real difference in her undergraduate experience.

“This student group completely changed my experience as an undergrad,” says Giulia Tiramani, a fourth-year undergraduate student studying civil engineering. “You have some classes, especially in your first year, that might have 100 students and you don’t really have the chance to get to know anyone.

“Being in a student group allowed me to make those important connections; there are competitions, opportunities to network and meet people who are actually working in the field — it just gave me such an enriching experience.”

Doubling research

Great programs and opportunities attract top students and faculty, which in turn leads to great research.

“Our emphasis on graduate level research is really allowing us to capitalize on some big research projects,” says Whitelaw.

“GCS is doing some amazing work in the areas of artificial intelligence, cybersecurity, chemical and materials engineering and of course smart cities with Ursula Eicker, our new Canada Excellence Research Chair in Smart, Sustainable and Resilient Communities and Cities.”

GCS received a historic research boost in 2018 with a $15-million donation from the school’s namesake, Gina Cody, MA 81, PhD 89.

Part of her gift is supporting three new academic chairs: in data analytics and artificial intelligence; in the internet of things; and in Industry 4.0 and advanced manufacturing. The remaining funds are reserved for student financial support.

“About 50 per cent of Gina Cody’s donation was for scholarships,” says Asif. “Her gift will be funding a total of 40 PhD Scholarships and 100 undergraduate scholarships over seven years, with most of those for underrepresented populations or for students from underprivileged backgrounds.”

Asif says the focus on these groups is part of the Gina Cody School’s aspiration to be an inclusive faculty where equity, diversity and inclusion are a priority.

Girls attending All-Girls Summer Engineering and Technology Program “We want to make Concordia the first choice for women in engineering,” says associate dean Anjali Agarwal.

Mind the gap

Engineering and computer science are fields that still have significant gender and diversity gaps. According to Engineers Canada, only 13 per cent of working engineers in Canada are women. This is a big drop-off from the roughly 20 per cent of undergraduate engineering degrees awarded to women.

The numbers are even lower for indigenous women and women of colour.

To help bridge these gaps and help retain women in these fields, a large portion of Gina Cody’s gift was earmarked to support equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) initiatives throughout the faculty, at both the student and staff levels.

“We want to make Concordia the first choice for women in engineering,” says Agarwal. “This is a process that will take time because for change to happen it has to start in elementary or high school.”

Agarwal says the faculty does a lot of outreach to high schools and CEGEPs to encourage girls and young women to consider pursuing careers in engineering and computer science.

The faculty also created the All-Girls Summer Engineering and Technology Program, or GirlSET, a summer camp for girls in grades 8-11 and their first-year of CEGEP. The program is so popular that Agarwal says she more than doubled the capacity after the first year to accommodate the demand.

The faculty has had great success with attracting international students; currently nearly 50 per cent of students in GCS are international students — with strong representation from countries such as India, Iran and China.

The Gina Cody Effect

One challenge to closing the gender gap in engineering and computer science is the perception of these fields as “male territory.”

Popular culture – textbooks, film, television, even science fiction – depict men in the jobs of building rocket engines, designing bridges or creating video games. To break deeply entrenched stereotypes, we need role models to inspire the next generation to follow in their footsteps. Enter Gina Cody.

On September 24, 2018, Gina Cody made a landmark gift in support of the Campaign for Concordia and the engineering and computer science faculty. Not only was it the largest personal donation ever given to the university, the faculty was renamed in her honour. The gift generated more than 400 headlines around the world.

Giulia Tiramani was there when Gina Cody made her historic announcement.

“I felt an immense pride,” says Tiramani. “I'm a woman and there aren't many women in engineering in general, particularly in civil engineering or building engineering. So knowing that she is a graduate and was the first woman PhD in building engineering makes me proud. And maybe gives me a bit hope, too — that maybe that could be me one day.”

For the first time in Canada, a woman’s name graces an engineering and computer science school – and it matters.

“Having Gina Cody’s name on the school makes a difference,” says Acemian. “In a way it is almost giving women permission to go into engineering.”

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