With only 3 academic years behind it, the University of Ontario Institute of Technology (UOIT) is a new kid on the block. But it's not just Ontario’s newest university; it's also the fastest growing. UOIT enrollment is expected to reach 4000 this fall, with a projected rise to about 6500 by the end of the decade. The Institute's science graduate programs are still under development, and the school’s undergraduate programs and research concentrations are both quickly expanding in scope and size. Consequently, its faculty ranks are also expanding. In the last 2 years a dozen faculty positions have been filled, and more openings are expected in the coming years.

New paradigms

The Oshawa-based school is betting that it can attract some of the best students and researchers with what it considers a fresh approach to teaching and doing science. “We are looking to carve out a special niche amongst universities in Ontario,” says William Smith, dean of the faculty of science, “From the get-go we have been about combining advanced teaching technologies with an innovative interdisciplinary approach to both education and high-quality research.”

UOIT has no traditional, discipline-based departments--just one all-encompassing science faculty that blends under one roof all 6 of its research areas--applied mathematics, biological sciences, chemistry, computer science, physics, and the new interdisciplinary area of forensic science. An MSc program in modeling and computational science is in the final-approval stages, and is planned to open in fall 2007; additional programs in applied bioscience and materials science are being assessed for governmental approval.


Smith believes that the institution's interdisciplinary emphasis gives faculty members a chance to work together in a uniquely collaborative environment and prepares students to enter a complex and competitive industrial work sector. Pharmaceutical chemistry and medical physics are two examples of UOIT education and research programs that combine two more traditional fields. “Many of today’s companies are looking at problems that require multidisciplinary skills that combine different fields,” says Smith. “We want to train people to go into the workplace with a high level of scientific knowledge so that they can compete in the global economy.”

The wired campus

Another thing that sets UOIT apart from other Canadian institutions is its state-of-the-art computer technology. “We are using today’s technology and integrating it into the classroom and all our programs,” says Smith. All students get IBM laptops and a full suite of software that allow them to access course materials, conduct research, and communicate with faculty through a wireless infrastructure.


Students with laptops in a UOIT classroom

In turn, faculty members are required to be proficient in the use of computers and the Internet. New faculty members attend workshops to learn how to conduct lectures using the institution's audio-visual technology, use proprietary software to analyze data from experiments, and maintain course-related websites. UOIT instructors also use Tablet PCs when teaching their courses. The advantage of all this, says Smith, is interactivity. Professors can amend their digital lecture notes on the fly and send them electronically to students during class. “All incoming faculty have to be aware that we are a tech savvy institution and there needs to be a total buy-in to that” says Smith. "I joke with interviewees that we shoot people who use blackboards.”

Going up

Getting in on the ground floor, helping to build new curricula, and shaping the future of a faculty was a big draw for Doug Holdway. Holdway, who joined the institution in 2002 as a full professor, holds a Tier-1 Canada Research Chair position in ecotoxicology. He studies the impact of very brief ‘pulse’ exposures to contaminants and endocrine disrupters on aquatic life. “It’s very exciting to be writing courses, creating programs,” says Holdway, “Here you have the chance to do something that hasn’t been done in 40 years in Ontario: building a university from scratch,”

Since his specialty combines scientific fields, Holdway is excited about opportunities for collaborative research with colleagues from other fields. “Without the traditional departmental structures found at most universities, there are lots of opportunities to rub shoulders with people on a day-to-day basis who might be chemists, physicists, or mathematicians.”


Brad Easton

A good fit

Brad Easton, who just joined as an assistant professor in chemistry this past July, says he knew right away that UOIT would be a great fit for him. He was studying electrochemistry and materials science at Dalhousie as a postdoc, working out of a physics lab. He found he didn’t quite fit into any of the traditional departmental niches. “If you don’t fit into the normal chemistry categories, then it can be difficult to find a faculty position,” says Easton.

So the multidisciplinary way of doing things at UOIT caught his attention. Easton, who looks at materials used in fuel cell electrodes and brain sensors, is already communicating with a new hire in the physics program about starting up a collaboration--–something he might have shied away from, he says, at another institution.

Hiring

Easton was one of five new faculty members hired this year. According to Holdway, who is on the faculty hiring committee, they hope to obtain approval to hire at least one new faculty member in each of their 6 research areas, and some technical personnel.

So far, theoreticians have received $60 000 in startup funds, dispensed over 2 years, to hire postdocs and buy equipment. Experimentalists have received $100,000, plus $50,000 in matching funds if they were able to find a match. Traditional federal and provincial funding agencies appear to be quite accepting of the UOIT’s interdisciplinary approach: Smith says that in less than 3 years of operation, the faculty of science has attracted $4.4 million in external grants and contracts. 87% of core science faculty have NSERC discovery grants. Because UOIT is a new institution they're likely to need every penny to get up to speed. “The funding is very competitive to other places, but at the same time you are walking into a lab that is essentially empty. You’re not inheriting a whole lot of material,” says Easton.


Dr. Holdway's state-of-the-art aquatic toxicology lab

That's one of the reasons why an entrepreneurial and collaborative spirit is expected from faculty members, says Holdway. UOIT aims to get people who are willing to be interdisciplinary and put together collaborative grants with colleagues to get equipment.

“This is done a lot within a traditional department at other universities, but in our case it’s done across what would normally be different departments, where you would have a chemist, a biologist and a mathematician pitching in for one piece of equipment,” says Holdway.

The MIT of the north?

As the first university to be established in Ontario in 40 years, UOIT has much to prove – especially with the multidisciplinary approach of its science programs, which has probably raised eyebrows and ruffled some feathers in the academic community, Smith says. “There are a lot of traditionalists at other universities, so it’s been a challenge to gain the respect of some of our peers,” he adds, “But at the same time this has, and continues to be, a big attraction to some very talented people, both junior and senior members in the scientific community,”

The goal, Smith says, is not to compete with others directly but to focus on areas of study and research that aren’t covered well at other universities. “We can’t be another [University of Toronto] and we have no inclination of doing that. We want to be something different.” Smith has set high standards and hopes that in a few decades his school might be known as the “MIT of the north”. “That’s part of the dream as well,” he says, “But only future generations will tell us how we’ve done,”

Check out UOIT’s Web site for more information.

Photos courtesy of UOIT.

Andrew Fazekas is a correspondent at Next Wave and may be reached at afazekas@aaas.org.

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Andrew Fazekas is a correspondent at Next Wave and may be reached at afazekas@aaas.org.