Ada Hurst is a member of the Department of Management Sciences in the Faculty of Engineering at the University of Waterloo. She primarily teaches in the management engineering program, an undergraduate program in the department. Her research focus and teaching are in the area of engineering design.
STEM to the Sky
Mar 31, 2023
Management engineering is a very unique program. It's the only one in Canada actually. We like to think of it as a modernized version of industrial engineering. But the basic premise is that today's world is very data-driven: organizations use a lot of data and the world is very digital. What management engineering does is it uses a series or a number of methods and approaches from the management sciences. These are things like mathematics, operations research, information systems—a lot of software—behavioral science, and organizational science. What you do is you build tools and methods in order to help organizations improve and optimize their products, processes, or systems.
(Credit: Dr. Ada Hurst)
My role is that I teach capstone design. Engineering students during their fourth year always work on what’s called a capstone design project. I help students learn and practice design methods and also tutor them in working on these design projects from beginning to end. That's where my interest in engineering design, both as a subject that I teach and also as research comes in. My research involves how people design and how people learn how to do it. What design really means in management engineering is designing management systems, which are typically decisions or systems usually software-based, but they help organizations make better decisions. These decisions can really vary. It can range from how you schedule your flights if you are an airline, to how you build cohesive teams, to pricing decisions, to scheduling assignments—all kinds of different operational decisions that organizations make. All of them can be solved using the tools and methods from management engineering.
I was definitely interested in STEM. I had three things I wanted to be: an astronaut, an archaeologist, or a scientist. It ended up being the scientist. People when they think about science think of natural science—like chemistry and biology. But my career in engineering design is at the intersection of engineering and psychology, so it’s both a natural science and a social science. Some like to think that it's both art and science, and others like to think that it's a third discipline altogether, neither art nor science. But everyone will agree that design is some combination or a unique blend of the two.
My undergraduate degree was in electrical engineering. In high school, I liked all the subjects. I definitely loved STEM, math in particular. But I also loved writing, history, and geography too. I went into electrical engineering because you tend to like to follow the footsteps of the people you admire. In my case, my father was an electrical engineer, so I followed in his footsteps. It turned out that electrical engineering wasn't really the path for me.
One thing that opened my eyes beyond this analytical world was that I pursued a minor in religious studies. For at least a portion of my courses, I pretended to be an art student. In electrical engineering, you do a lot of math assignments, hardware labs, and programming. There’s correct answers. That’s the nature of the work that you do. But in arts, especially in religious studies, there are lots of readings, forming arguments, justifying those arguments, and a lot of gray areas. I really enjoyed this duality of both the analytical and the uncertainty.
It wasn't a straightforward pathway. After that, I did a master's and PhD in management sciences, which again, is a very unique interdisciplinary department where you're blending a lot of seemingly different things. We have a heavy math component, a software component, and a psychological component, but all of these prepared me for this new activity of teaching and researching design where these things all come together.
2022 Management Engineering Capstone Design Symposium (Credit: Dr. Ada Hurst)
I find it really fascinating that management engineering applies to so many industries and fields. In my role, we have been tracking our graduates and their careers through their LinkedIn profiles for over 10 years now. It's been fascinating to see the range of both industries and the kinds of work they do, and how successful they are.
Many of them end up working in product management, which is currently a very highly sought-after career. It’s almost like the interface of engineering. If you're in software product management, it’s usually software engineering interface, business, and also user experience. You're trying to manage the design and development of products so that they fit the needs of users, make sense from a business perspective of the company, are feasible, and can be developed from an engineering perspective. So that’s a very interesting and useful area. If I could do it again, that would be one career that will be interesting for me.
Another area that management engineering students work in is big data. There's a lot of data being generated in our everyday life. Organizations can use that data internally and externally. Beyond just simple business analytics methods, more advanced data analytics and data science methods are being created and developed to draw insight from data that a person cannot necessarily see. By using advanced data science and AI machine learning tools, our students, through their training in management engineering, now can apply this to the workplace and be part of a growing field that is highly in need of a group of people who have the skills to do this analysis.
Another big area is consulting. There are all kinds of consulting, from technology consulting to strategy consulting. The idea is the same: you are going in with this mind that is open to working with an organization to understand what their issues are and then working with them to design a sustainable solution that can serve the organization in the long term.
Finally, a lot of our students also work in the software development area. At the University of Waterloo, there are many different engineering programs. But interestingly, management engineering has one of the highest numbers of software engineering courses in this curriculum. Many of our students are interested and talented in software, so they further increase their exposure to it through their courses and co-op experiences.
As someone that teaches at a university, one thing that I've learned about teaching is that things are always changing. It's easy to say that you were taught one way in high school/university, so that’s how you will teach your students. That can work, but sometimes it doesn't work. The students are changing in terms of new experiences and different expectations, the content of the courses is changing, and technologies are changing. The main skill that I find useful is being flexible and willing to give up on what you thought was a good way to teach a subject. Always be willing to listen to the students and their feedback. Try new things and change things up.
What should remain constant is paying attention to students' needs and the overarching goal of student learning. It’s important to maintain empathy for where students come from and what helps them learn. Then everything else can change around it. If you're focusing on what the students need to learn and make that the goal, then you don't have to worry so much about finding the best way to teach something and always maintaining it that way.
"It’s important to maintain empathy for where students come from and what helps them learn. Then everything else can change around it."
Dr. Ada Hurst
I teach something called Management Engineering Capstone Design Project courses. This is a sequence of two courses that students take in their final year. It's interesting because it's very different from regular courses. Most courses at university are lecture-based, but in engineering design, there's much less structured learning in a lecture environment.
The main way that you learn design is by something we call the “design studio”. It's a social space. It’s an open and informal space where students learn to design by doing—with a one-on-one tutor who is a design expert or instructor. Although I do end up in front of the classroom trying to explain design methods, a lot of the teaching actually happens one-on-one with student groups whom I tutor and give advice to from the very beginning when they’re trying to figure out a challenge on which to base their design project, all the way to the very end when I get to celebrate with them their final design, which is put on display in a public showcase.
Typical days are mostly in front of my computer one way or another. I am a mother with two small children, so my mornings are very busy helping them get ready for school. Sometimes I drop them off at school and drive to work. The activities that are related to my teaching usually involve a lot of time spent preparing for class, preparing lectures, and grading. Normally you have teaching assistants when it comes to the capstone projects, but I end up doing my evaluation of the students since it is important that I get involved to provide feedback and help them progress in the design projects. I also do a lot of one-on-one meetings with student teams.
The research side involves meetings with collaborators, graduate students, and undergraduate students who are involved in research projects. I also work on papers, whether writing my own papers or editing and helping out with papers that we're writing as a group. Then, I answer many emails from students and colleagues, which has become part of how the modern workplace runs really.
These different career tracks are very in demand now, so it's easy for students to get a job and do well in industry. At the University of Waterloo, they do what’s called co-op, so they get almost two years of work experience in industry—up to six co-op terms with each being four months in length. Most engineers like these work experiences and get these great careers in industry without looking back.
I was one of the rare ones. For me, I loved being on campus much more than co-op. I kind of knew that I liked school better than work. That prompted me to get a masters and then a PhD. Once you get into a PhD track, you are far more likely to stay in academia. Many students will eventually get jobs such as in research labs or in industry, but for me I just really liked staying in the school environment. I get to be on campus, interact with students, be in a learning environment, and also teach and learn from students. Some people just like to be in school forever, and I think I’m one of them.
Management Engineering class of 2022 at Convocation (Credit: Dr. Ada Hurst)
There are a lot of opportunities for students that are not really written anywhere, and you don't really find out about them unless you talk to people. Not everything is written or publicized. For example, I did not know that professors actually really love to work with undergraduate students on research projects. I also did not know that it's a good idea to try out various courses in the first week of classes to learn more about them and then make a decision about what is the best course for you.
If I could go back I would have taken more advantage of such opportunities. I would have talked to more professors and looked up opportunities to work in their lab to get some research experience in my undergraduate program. That would have really improved my ability to get scholarships down the line, as well as my master's and PhD. The overarching advice here is to try to learn from others. Get mentors and ask them how they go about finding opportunities or getting into new things.
Many are saying that big data and artificial intelligence are going to change the way that we do design. These methods and tools have been shown to at the very least assist designers throughout the design process, but sometimes can even replace designers. So the big question for me as a design educator is “How do I change the way I teach design?” “How do I complement the current teaching of design with these AI methods?” “How do I teach the students how to use AI in their design?” Then in industry, there are a series of applications for organizations on how to structure design teams, how to organize design processes, and how to manage AI-assisted design in particular.
So the big question for me as a design educator is “How do I change the way I teach design?” “How do I complement the current teaching of design with these AI methods?” “How do I teach the students how to use AI in their design?”
Dr. Ada Hurst