UW Software Eng students pay it forward

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On this St Patrick’s Day, when community leaders are beseeching local university students to be respectful and “stay golden” as they party in the streets, I’ve got a good news story for you of the thoughtfulness and generosity of some 4th year UW Software Engineering students. Actually, it’s a *great* story for me as a parent, citizen and earthling.

My 8th grade son Calder (left) has very keenly set his sights on The University of Waterloo Software Engineering program. At 13 years old, he’s already writing code daily, pair programming with his buddies, and checking his work into GitHub. I tried to get him interested in coding with Scratch when he was younger, but it was more recently that his self-taught dev fire got lit by Codecademy, looking at JavaScript, Ruby, Python and beyond. That led to lots of interesting discussions between us around machine instruction sets, the pros and cons of interpreted languages, platform independence, strong data typing and network protocols. Now I ask *him* questions about solving the asynchronous callback issues in my Node.js project.

I’ve got more for you here, but first: self-promotion. There are no ads on makebright. There are no pop-ups that ask you to turn off an ad-blocker. My awesome Patreon supporters kick in small amounts of money per post with a monthly cap because they’re investing in Waterloo Region. Shout to Chris Craig, my latest supporter. Thanks!  If you dig my community-building work, please support it with your pocket change. Ok, now more story.

Bragging about my kid aside and to paraphrase Milton, long is the way and hard that up from high school leads to UW SE. With both of my teenagers looking at UW Eng programs, we are keen followers of Professor Bill Anderson who writes very helpfully on admissions, teaching and research in UW Engineering. Living only 2km from campus and regularly visiting for a variety of reasons, I didn’t need, though do appreciate, Professor Bill’s strong suggestion: I highly recommend that high school applicants and future prospects take a look at all these program listings”. He’s talking about the 4th year Capstone Design Project Symposia that happen every year in the Davis Centre. Students present their group design projects, drawing on skills developed through their extensive co-op experience and their learning from school. Above, SE student Jason Hau-Ken Chan (right) talks to Calder about team unLit’s Machine Learning Game Artificial Intelligence. Jason spent 20 minutes with us explaining the project, talking frankly about challenges and fielding our questions about the project, the SE program and his co-op experience. Massive thanks to him and the other students with whom we spoke.

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I’m not sure 22 year old graduating students can fully appreciate what a great service they’ve done us in talking with our young future engineer. They’re much closer to Calder’s age and better informed on SE than I am, so they make it real for him. It’s much easier to take advice from your near-peers than from your Mom and Dad. I always ask them what advice or insights they would give to their high school selves if they could go back in time. And sometimes they surprise me:

* Learn to cook! And live in UWP so you’re forced to cook. That way you’re equipped for co-op terms.

* Manage your time! There’s a big workload, especially in first year. There’s a 30% dropout rate in first year, so come prepared to work hard.

* First year Physics and Linear Algebra courses are hard.

* Use your co-op terms to explore as many different jobs, employers and cities as you can.

* You’ll need a high school average in the mid-90’s to even be considered for UW SE so study hard and develop good work habits before you get to university.

* Take on extra projects outside of school work so you can demonstrate your commitment on your UW Engineering application.

When Calder and I got back to the car as we left campus, we made a whole list from the advice these students gave. They’re paying it forward two undergrad “generations” and represent the school so well.

Click through for a few more pics+story…

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I’ve done many photo shoots of UW, Laurier and Conestoga College students over the years and I’m always impressed. I captured some great community interactions of UW students for Kelly McManus’ Community Relations group last year, including this crew from Velocity. I had the privilege of speaking to Laura Allan’s entrepreneurship students at Laurier before they engaged Maker Expo exhibitors. I got to talk to the IEEE chapter of makers in Conestoga’s makerspace. All of these experiences left me with a positive feeling that the future is in good hands with these smart people. If I had one wish, it would be that they stay here in Waterloo Region and join us in building out this community.

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Calder asked “Was there ever a time on this project when you felt like giving up?” Jason replied “Oh, yeah!”

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There are lots of opportunities to connect with UW. In fact, this Saturday March 19 is the Engineering March Break Open House. I’m pretty keen to see Andy Trivett’s Mech Eng students fly their RC blimps around E5.

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Team unLit worked on some AI to make games more interesting. The idea is that your in-game opponents learn and counter your strategies, making the game more interesting.

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Calder *loved* their demo game, declaring the AI demonstrated by the game sprites “very cool”. My son loves computer games, with an advanced degree in building stuff in Minecraft and now coding his own games, so this is a great motivation and a readily accessible gateway to Software Engineering for him.

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Of course a group project is tackled by the whole group and here they are (L-R): Jason Hau-Ken Chan, Delia Yao, Taylor Petrick and Jonathan Yep. High five and thanks!

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Calder had checked out the project listing before we headed over to campus and selected a few projects that were particularly interesting to him. Our next group was team SAAVY who developed Magpie. We spoke with Meenu Venkittarajan (left) and Varun Senguttuvan about Magpie’s ability to fetch and store website metadata. I put Calder on to writing Greasemonkey scripts when he started Javascript so he became familiar with web metadata and the document object model. It was also instructive to puzzle out some pretty gnarly CSS from various websites and code some programmatic screen-scrapers.

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This team has open-sourced their project. (L-R) Alice Yuan, Meenu Venkittarajan, Varun Senguttuvan and Samiya Akhtar. Thank you!

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And speaking of CSS…

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next up was team A4, who not only had a project…

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they also had a customer who provided requirements for their work . Calder deemed their RichCSS project as “npm for CSS”.

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We were happy to have a demo and chat with…

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A4’s Jonathan Lai.

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Thanks Jonathan.

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We wrapped up our visit talking with team TaktMe about their project GEESE. (L-R) Cody Chung, Michael Quan and Johnny Zhang. If I understood correctly, their project combines geo-local interest groups across social media platforms. Very cool. And lots of helpful advice and observations for us. Johnny, hailing from Vancouver, was the one who encouraged Calder to take full advantage of co-op by moving to different places and jobs. Thanks guys!

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Well UW, Calder and I will be back next week to check out the ECE Symposium and then I’ll be returning the following week with my daughter Arden who has her sights set on Civil Engineering.

I’ve been dropping by the Design Symposia since 2002 when I started work at BlackBerry, then just across the train tracks from the Davis Centre. In those 14 years, the students have been consistently bright, engaging and generous in their willingness to talk with strangers. Keep doing what you’re doing.

On Ring Road, this is Waterloo.


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2 Responses to UW Software Eng students pay it forward

  1. Matt says:

    Don’t miss the Systems Design Engineering symposium either! Tuesday, March 22, 2016 – 12:30 PM to 4:30 PM EDT in the Davis Centre!

  2. Rob Gorbet says:

    Thanks for a well written and documented account, as always!

    I have to say though: if you’re coming on campus Saturday be sure to come to EV1-250 to check out the Knowledge Integration students’ equivalent of Engineering’s fourth-year design projects: museum exhibits! This year’s are on the nature of Trust, how we measure and value Time, the relationship between Photographs and Memories, and design techniques for Immersive Reality. More at KIX.uwaterloo.ca. The exhibits will be open 11am to 3:30pm and I’ll be there!

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