Perspectives Newsletter Spring 2021
Vol. 44, no.1 / Posted on June 15, 2021

Prepared by
Danny Mann, Ph.D., P.Eng.
Professor & Head
Department of Biosystems Engineering

Milestones arrive even in the midst of a pandemic. To be completely honest, we were not even aware of the milestone until a review of the department’s history (as documented by several previous professors) revealed that the first Bachelor’s degree in Agricultural Engineering was awarded at the University of Manitoba in 1971 – marking 50 years – certainly a reason for celebration!

A Look Back at Our History

The current Department of Biosystems Engineering can trace its history back to 1906 which marked the opening of the Manitoba Agricultural College on property in Tuxedo bounded on the north by Wellington Crescent and on the east by Doncaster Street. At the time, the academic unit was referred to as the ‘Farm Mechanics Department’. As early as 1912, graduates from the Manitoba Agricultural College with a Bachelor of Science in Agriculture (BSA) were offered a choice of two options: Plant Science and Agricultural Engineering. Unfortunately, the Agricultural Engineering Option of this era had little real engineering content.

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Fig. 1.  The Engineering and Mechanics Building at the Tuxedo site of the Manitoba Agricultural College — home of the Agricultural Engineering Department from 1908 to 1913 (photographed in 1973).

For several decades, successive Heads of the Department of Agricultural Engineering held to the hope that someday students at the University of Manitoba would be able to complete a program leading to a professional engineering degree in the discipline of Agricultural Engineering. It was not until 1958 when traction towards this goal began to occur. The Head, Professor H. Lapp, submitted a brief entitled “Agricultural Engineering for Manitoba” to the Deans of both Agriculture and Engineering that described the need for a professional engineering program in Agricultural Engineering in Manitoba. A year later, six second-year engineering students at the University of Manitoba contributed to another written brief requesting the University of Manitoba to offer a degree in Agricultural Engineering. Unfortunately, two of the six students were unwilling to wait for change to occur at the University of Manitoba and transferred to the University of Saskatchewan to obtain Agricultural Engineering degrees from that institution. In 1960, the Education Committee of the Manitoba Institute of Agrologists recommended that an Agricultural Engineering degree be established at the University of Manitoba. Unfortunately, the University of Manitoba tabled its deliberations in 1964. Professor Lapp refused to give up and, in 1965, submitted a “Five-year plan of development for the Agricultural Engineering Department” to the Dean of Agriculture. Finally, in 1968, a Committee on Agricultural Engineering presented recommendations to the University of Manitoba Vice-President unanimously concluding that the University of Manitoba should offer an undergraduate course in Agricultural Engineering. Later in 1968, the establishment of the Agricultural Engineering degree program was finally approved. Although the Department of Agricultural Engineering remained an academic unit in the Faculty of Agriculture, the Agricultural Engineering undergraduate program was established in the Faculty of Engineering – this dual-faculty arrangement exists to this day with the academic staff formally belonging to the Faculty Councils in both faculties. The first students to graduate with a Bachelors degree in Agricultural Engineering from the University of Manitoba in 1971 were G.R. Cousin, R.J. Dunlop, and M. Van Den Bosch. The Agricultural Engineering degree was first accredited by the Accreditation Board of the Canadian Council of Professional Engineers in 1971. Accreditation of the Agricultural Engineering program continued until 1998 when the degree was replaced by Biosystems Engineering; the Biosystems Engineering program has been accredited since 1996.

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Fig. 2. Front view of the Agricultural Engineering Building along Dafoe Rd on the Fort Garry campus.

Between 1971 and 1998, there were a total of 172 graduates of the Agricultural Engineering program. Since 1996, there have been a total of 396 graduates of the Biosystems Engineering program (and still counting). The decision made by members of Department Council in the 1990s to change the degree from Agricultural Engineering to Biosystems Engineering had the desired effect of increasing enrolment in the program. Currently, the Biosystems Engineering program has an admission cap of 48 students – a cap that has been consistently achieved in 4 of the past 5 years.

Biosystems Engineering in 2021

The discipline of Biosystems Engineering emphasizes the application of engineering principles to biologically-centred systems. Biosystems engineers help to create new technologies for the well-being of humans and animals, and the preservation and enhancement of natural resources and the environment. The Biosystems Engineering program is designed to give students knowledge of the fundamental principles of engineering and introduces biological concepts to enable these engineers to successfully interact with relevant professionals when solving engineering problems involving biological systems. The Department of Biosystems Engineering offers three specializations (Biomedical, Bioresource, and Environmental) that are available to undergraduate students. The program is offered in both traditional and co-operative education formats. Profiles of a number of our alumni are featured on the department’s website (www.umanitoba.ca/engineering/biosystems).

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Fig. 3. Front view of the new EITC building at the Fort Garry campus. The offices of the Department of Biosystems Engineering are located on the second floor immediately above the entrance.

Lendre Adele Heise was the first female graduate of the Agricultural Engineering program in 1981. Although there were few female students in the Agricultural Engineering program in those early years, 41% of the most recent graduating class (June 2020) were women. The Biosystems Engineering program has been consistently attracting a proportion of female engineering students of 40% or greater since the early 2000’s. We are proud of the fact that our Biosystems Engineering program appeals to engineering students of both genders.

To complement the undergraduate program, three distinct graduate programs are available. At the Master’s level, students can choose between the research-based M.Sc. program (which began in 1967) and the course-based M.Eng. program (which began in 1976). The Ph.D. program in Biosystems Engineering was not approved until 1988. A recent addition to the Ph.D. program is a Graduate Specialization in Engineering Education to formally provide credit to doctoral students interested in specializing in the emerging academic discipline of engineering education.

Faculty and students in the Department of Biosystems Engineering conduct world-class research in a number of areas where the engineering and biological worlds intersect (i.e., machinery systems, agricultural structures, soil & water engineering, food storage & processing, etc). Historically, the department has perhaps been best known for research in the areas of grain storage & handling (including modeling of the stored-grain ecosystem) and biological (microbial) production of biofuels and bioproducts. Emerging research strengths include processing & utilization of waste biomass fibre for industrial and medical applications, computational methods for biological & biomedical imaging, smart technologies for food process engineering, sustainable food production in controlled-environment systems, remote supervision of autonomous agricultural machines, and surface engineering of polymeric materials for medical and biomedical applications. And, as introduced in the previous paragraph, doctoral students in Biosystems Engineering are able to complete research on a number of topics contributing to the scholarship of engineering education.

The Department of Biosystems Engineering is home to the University of Manitoba’s “Sustainability-in-Action Facility” (SiAF). Our Vision is that SiAF will become the campus home for experiential learning and demonstration opportunities that relate to sustainability. The current pandemic has slowed our progress on this new initiative, but we soon hope to be able to use the SiAF site to offer experiential learning opportunities in undergraduate and graduate courses in the areas of renewable energy, innovative food production systems within controlled environments, sustainable building practices, and utilization of waste biomass for production of value-added materials. Furthermore, we hope that SiAF can be used to engage in public education and outreach in areas of sustainability, to initiate short-term demonstration projects with industry to showcase emerging sustainability technologies, and to support innovative research activities in areas of sustainability. We would love to have visitors to SiAF (once COVID-19 allows such activities to resume).

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Fig. 4. Sustainability-in-Action Facility (SiAF) located on the west edge of the Fort Garry campus.

Celebrating the Achievements of our Alumni

In recognition of this milestone year, members of Department Council established terms of reference for Alumni of Influence Awards to be awarded to both undergraduate and graduate alumni of the Department of Biosystems Engineering (or former Department of Agricultural Engineering). These awards are intended to help us celebrate achievements made by people who have graduated from our programs. Separate awards will be selected for those alumni who graduated prior to 1995 from the Department of Agricultural Engineering and those who graduated after 1995 from the Department of Biosystems Engineering. Nomination forms will be available on the department’s website in the near future. We encourage you to consider nominating an alumnus of our program who has positively influenced the engineering profession or the community at large. It is our intent to formally recognize the inaugural recipients of the Biosystems Engineering Alumni of Influence Awards at a special event in September.

We encourage you to visit the department’s webpage (www.umanitoba.ca/engineering/biosystems) throughout the coming months for more information on the department’s history and upcoming events celebrating this milestone anniversary.