Endowing Swagger

This past Thursday, I returned from my annual alumni engagement trip to Silicon Valley and the San Francisco Bay Area. My conversations with alumni typically centre around how McMaster Engineering can learn from the Valley to improve the innovation ecosystem around us in Hamilton, where we reside.

The previous day, I attended a dinner hosted by an amazingly creative alumnus. This kid’s going far – very far. We ate at a restaurant in San Francisco’s historic Jackson Square where we discussed a comment he had made to me a couple of years ago.

Our alumnus also has an engineering Master’s degree from a globally prominent Bay Area university. Hence, during our introductory meeting soon after I was appointed dean of engineering, I had asked him whether he perceived a difference between his McMaster Engineering education and from that local university.

“Swagger,” he had replied then, without hesitation. “That’s the difference.”

“McMaster Engineering prepared me so well that advanced graduate classes at [prominent Bay Area University] were ridiculously easy. However, while I knew the insides and outsides of digital signal processing through my McMaster Engineering education, [prominent Bay Area University] gave me the opportunity to see the inventors of the DSL and cable modems debate the pros and cons of the two technologies during class.”

“There were quite a few students there who didn’t know signal processing theory as well as I did. However, they all seemed to know the market contexts of various technologies and the competitive features of their different implementations.”

“You require that understanding to innovate. It endows you with swagger.”


I’ve mentioned our alumnus’ comment many times to my McMaster Engineering colleagues.

What is swagger?  The word has many dictionary meanings and can reduce to arrogance, braggadocio, bluster and ostentation. These are not the meanings that our alumnus implies. Rather, his wish is that McMaster Engineering graduates become more self confident, self assured, poised and technologically courageous.

The philanthropist Dr. Doug Barber has said to me, “Knowledge should never be the only key output. It simply isn’t enough to learn basic research in an institution these days.

I agree. Dr. Barber’s  generosity has lead to the Building Thinkers initiative, which is a suite of programs intended to re-imagine engineering education to educate the “whole engineer”.

How do we impart swagger? That’s easy to answer. Our students must have greater access and exposure to the thinking of innovators, entrepreneurs, thought leaders and inventors who can serve as real role models.

We’re doing just that. At McMaster Engineering, we believe that an engineering education must help students develop comprehensively. Not only should students learn technical skills, they must become more aware about emotional intelligence, society, value propositions, and appreciate diversity, including that of thought and opinion.

Today, many more of our faculty members are inventors than before. They also serve as outstanding mentors to our students.

Professor Ali Emadi is a Fellow of the National Academy of Inventors. He holds 40 U.S. patents and patents pending and is also the founder of several university spin-off companies, such as Hybrid Electric Vehicle Technologies, Inc. and Enedym, Inc.

Likewise, Professor Natalia Nikolova’s innovations are advancing machine learning to detect concealed weapons. Her technology is being incorporated into the new NForce weapons detection system developed by Patriot One Technologies, Inc. that picks up weapons as people pass through various points, such as doors and turnstiles.

The problem with conventional eye drops is one of the top issues in eye care. With her students, Professor Heather Sheardown has developed a better way to deliver medicine to the surface of the eye in the form of microscopic packets as an alternative to eye drops. The medicine dissolves and is released gradually, bringing greater relief than current medications provide to patients coping with chronic dry eye and glaucoma.

Professor Stephen Veldhuis  works with industry partners to support advanced manufacturing research in the polymer, automotive, aerospace, tool and die, food processing and biomedical industries. His goal is to ensure that innovative ideas are commercialized and ultimately produced in Canada.

We teach our students to innovate in the classroom. Professor Robert Fleisig is one of the leaders of the Impact Project through which engineering students work with students in other disciplines to create devices for clients living with health or mobility challenges.

Dr. Fleisig says, “You’ve got to ask the bigger, more integrative questions: does it actually create value, does it actually meet needs? And that’s not an engineering question, that’s not a technical question, it’s a human and emotional question.”

We’ve launched a makerspace, where the McMaster community can gather to create, invent and learn. The space provides students with access to tools, such as 3D printers and laser cutters, technology, expertise and social connections that are not otherwise readily accessible. Thus, it offers students a hands-on minds–on opportunity to explore new technologies, learn technical skills and work collaboratively so that they are able to transform their innovative and creative ideas into tangible prototypes.

Our innovation culture allows students to develop new ideas, methods and products, and enable change. Recently , during the third annual DeltaHacks Hackathon for Change, more than 400 students from McMaster and other universities came together to create the next “big thing” in the world of technology.

Perhaps, the most touching words during my visit came from an alumnus during the alumni dinner that I hosted at a venue on Silicon Valley’s famous Sand Hill Road. This alumnus raised $350 million over three years for his first startup a few years ago and now leads another data security company, his sixth startup, which has 100 employees.

“Mac gave me opportunity,” he told the Sand Hill assembly. “As the son of a taxi driver from Brampton, I’m proud of my McMaster Engineering education and what I’ve been able to accomplish with it.”

I’m grateful to our Mac Eng alumni for encouraging me to think outside the box with equity, innovation and, yes, swagger in mind. I’m thankful to our faculty and staff members for stretching our growing innovation ecosystem, and to our students for responding enthusiastically. 

I’ve taken the advice of our Bay Area alumnus seriously. 

We’re endowing swagger, but we’re doing it the McMaster Engineering way.


One thought on “Endowing Swagger

  1. Another word for swagger might be confidence. An add value engineering education which equips students with a range of questions and skills imparts confidence to thrive and contribute in an innovation culture.

    Liked by 1 person

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