Choosing a STEM program at a Canadian University

Choosing a STEM program at a Canadian University

The Council of Canadian Academies reported that STEM skills are central to a variety of education and job opportunities and provide people with options in uncertain labor markets. The World Economic Forum reported in 2018 that technological change and shifts in job roles and occupations are transforming the demand for skills at a very rapid pace.

If a person goes to the computer store every few months, they’re likely to see whole new sections of new enhanced products and services. Artificial intelligence and big data analytics are highly influential fields which are rearranging the status quo in multiple industries. Cloud technology, modernization, and the 'internet of things' impact the world’s businesses, governments, and citizens in significant ways.

Organizations use the benefits of technologies within various ecosystems and initiatives. What does this mean for global employment? Job roles in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, or STEM, are increasingly available: cyber architects, software and application developers, E-commerce, social media specialists, process automation experts, conservation scientists, information security analysts, user experience and human-machine interaction designers, statisticians, robotics and petroleum engineers, dentists, and others, seize the advantages society presents to them. 

STEM Education in Canada

In a recent publication, Budget 2019:Investing in the Middle Class, the Canadian federal government committed to more investment in critical STEM skills and securing Canada’s future in space. Canada’s participation in the NASA-led lunar gateway and funding for a Canadian space strategy helps boost engineering jobs.

The demand for workers who can fill STEM-related jobs is predicted to continue to expand, and Canada is working to ensure that its workforce can meet future challenges. The Government of Canada and its federal partners have put forward several initiatives aimed at increasing the participation of Canadians in STEM. Here are a few:

The Schulich Leader Scholarships are the largest scholarships for science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) programs in Canada. They have a $100 million scholarship fund with 50 undergraduate scholarships given out per year.

The Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada's PromoScience Program offers financial support for organizations working with young Canadians to promote an understanding of science and engineering (including mathematics and technology).

Canada's Science andTechnology Awareness Network enhances the profile and influence of the science and technology education and public awareness sectors.

SHAD is a STEM and entrepreneurship program for outstanding high school students in grade 10 and 11 that prepares students for real-world design challenges.

The ScoutsCanada STEM program is designed to promote interest in STEM as students experiment with tools and resources.

Let’sTalk Science is a national charitable organization that focuses on science education and outreach support to youth development.

STEM Fields of Study

Science: includes core fields of scientific inquiry, such as biology, chemistry, physics. This group also includes some medical sciences.

Technology: includes a focus on the application of scientific and engineering principles to the development of new processes and technology.

Engineering: includes preparations for applying mathematical and scientific principles to the solution of practical problems.

Mathematics and Computer Sciences: includes pure and applied mathematics and statistics, as well as other disciplines.

What to Look For in a Program

Students who graduate from STEM programs go into the job sector with a valuable, in-demand set of skills. The decision about which college to attend is important because the choice impacts future earnings and the amount of debt incurred or where to settle or live after graduation.

Depending on which advanced degree is pursued, applicants should ensure they can handle the subject, workload, and career path that follows. Go into a degree program that assists with positioning in highly competitive industries.

Before getting into exploring the many STEM program offerings across Canada, please keep in mind that the overall average or grades in prerequisite subjects should be competitive. Students should have a sufficient number of available courses at the time of consideration, and meet the English language requirement (if applicable) by the deadline. Most if not all institutions require candidates to provide competitive results in math, chemistry, and physics courses. Specific prerequisites and required documents are determined by the education system and the student’s personal academic history.

The ‘ideal university’ depends on interests. A student may be looking to learn under a world-class faculty, or may prefer to receive paid career training as they work with professionals in their major field of study through a co-op program. For example, Algonquin College offers co-op programs where students typically earn approximately $7,000 – $10,000+ per work-term.

Other factors to look for include strong industry connections, significant support for entrepreneurship, the availability of resources, a culture of innovation, extracurricular activities, stimulating research projects, and so on. A good program presents the right opportunities to pursue particular endeavors.

One major cause of the avoidance of STEM degrees is that high grades are more difficult to achieve. The fear of flunking out can make students hesitant. However, the benefit of persisting through calculus, chemistry, and physics is that the end product, a career in a STEM field, is very lucrative.

To check all the boxes in terms of preparedness, it’s critical to visit a prospective school or do research heavily if a school visit isn't possible. Ask questions about what STEM means at that school and how the educational experience there is defined. Ask about the purpose of having STEM programs, the faculty’s background in STEM and each respective department’s vision, mission, strategic plan, and even test scores in math and science.

It's important that professors encourage students to analyze or approach problems with creative solutions, and that they don't merely teach theory or book-smarts. Find a program which translates well to flexible and agile problem-solving in real life, that helps shape resilience and professionalism. 

What kind of professional development do teachers receive to prepare them for STEM instruction? Do they have any special certifications? If the student has more certifications and experience than the professor, the student may want to re-evaluate their department or school of choice, or at least widen their scope to include other potential institutions. Education means an investment of a large sum of money, to include international relocation to attend, so it’s crucial to get to know the school beforehand.

Also, ask about the five-year plan for the curriculum and how that educational program trickles down to the classroom experience. Do students get lots of chances to use hands-on experiences, work together on teams, and practice leadership skills that can directly carry over to the workforce?

Consider going to a school with higher graduation rates, where more funds are invested in students, and graduate schools are more accessible. How are students of diverse backgrounds and cultures received? For example, the University of Alberta's Faculty of Science has initiatives to counteract factors contributing to the under-representation of women and marginalized groups within STEM disciplines.

Furthermore, ask about non-STEM disciplines. Candidates should look at a teacher's reading list to get an idea of what level they need to be on to earn passing marks in subjects like writing or philosophy. Ask to view a sample of a few students' work as a measuring stick for standards. The advantage of having a work product to review is that it provides a better understanding of how much progress is needed to overcome a potentially demanding school year or alleviate self-doubt.

William Minarik, a faculty lecturer in the Earth & Planetary Sciences department at McGill University, notes that “Science in Quebec is much more concentrated on the major studies than in most US institutions. Very few of our students take courses outside the department except Math and other foundational courses. Earth Science in Canada has a much stronger connection with the resource (fuel and mineral) industry than most US institutions. Our department is fortunate to have quite a bit of support for students to take field courses or field trips within regular courses.”

Tools and Resources

Perhaps a student is more interested in a state-of-the-art particle accelerator the school owns, or a natural science and engineering laboratory with access to geospatial tools or GPS satellite systems. It’s important to find out how students use technology and what ways those assets influence the curriculum in daily classroom life. Here are some examples:

The University of Waterloo at Southern Ontario is the only school in Canada that has an autonomous vehicle with autonomous-driving software built in-house.

The University of Saskatchewan's College of Agriculture and Bioresources features 180 research labs, 38 teaching labs, four computer classrooms, and seven conference rooms. The building has seven levels, including an underground car park and three extended wings.

At the University of Alberta in Edmonton, students work on a pilot project dubbed “Active-Aurora," which is Canada’s first connected-vehicle testbed network consisting of a grid of roads, high-tech labs and a vehicle test track at the university.

The University of Calgary collaborates through a partnership on a field research station called the Containment and Monitoring Institute. Students conduct in-field testing of technologies to accelerate the development and deployment of technologies like CO2 measurement, hydrocarbon production, and environmental monitoring.

Seneca College in Ontario has a four-year program that’s the only aviation technology-based degree program in Canada. Their School of Aviation has been awarded a $2.3-million grant by the Natural Science and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) over five years to support research in the area of flight training and flight simulation technology.

The University of Guelph offers an undergraduate Marine & Freshwater Biology program where students can work with aquatic organisms in an aqualab and participate in field courses in arctic, tropical or temperate regions.

For international students, the University of British Columbia’s Vantage College offers a first-year university program called Vantage One which combines one year of academic degree-focused credits with intensive academic English preparation. With 13 engineering programs available and 4,500 employer partnerships, it’s the largest engineering school and co-op program in Western Canada.

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Erik Moshe is a freelance writer based in Virginia.

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