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  5. Wendy Crone: Taking design courses into the YouTube era

Wendy Crone: Taking design courses into the YouTube era

Engineering design students affectionately call it “team time,” the part of class when they brainstorm topics, discuss applications, organize a game plan and generally take a design idea through its necessary paces.

The one cardinal rule of “team time,” says Engineering Physics Professor Wendy Crone, is that there never seems to be enough of it.

Crone and Biomedical Engineering Associate Professor Naomi Chesler decided to tackle this time management challenge by turning to the burgeoning field of online video. Using some of the top experts from both on and off the UW-Madison campus, the team created a library of two dozen lectures that cover the core principles of design, including communication, design considerations, the design process and patents and literature.

Before each topic is covered in class, students view the corresponding video, slides and resource links. Topics include human factors and ergonomics, codes and standards, oral and poster presentations, achieving FDA approval, working in teams and conflict resolution. They come to class ready to discuss the principles, rather than hear them for the first time.

The 100-plus biomedical engineering students involved in the 2009 pilot project responded positively to the video enhancements — in fact, a post-class survey found that 61 percent of students preferred the video lectures, compared to only 15 percent favoring in-class lectures.

There’s a strong reason for that preference, Crone says. “This video option enables students to gain more flexibility in the classroom through more independent work outside of class. They can now use that valuable class time to its best advantage.”

The flexibility of online delivery is another plus, Crone says. Students not only access the material when and where it’s convenient, they revisit and review the areas where they need more help, and skip concepts they have already mastered. And, as someone who occasionally gets accused of talking too fast in her lectures, Crone says some students like the option of putting their instructor on pause.

“We also hoped the project would build community among students,” she says. “It has done a fantastic job with that because they interact heavily with each other every week. There is less sitting and listening taking place.”

Crone came to the design project with good experience, having developed a series of online guest lectures introducing engineering students to research methodology. That program succeeded not only in her course, but the materials have been adopted by dozens of other instructors across the nation and world.

The video website has received nearly 3,500 unique visitors since fall 2008, nearly half from outside of Wisconsin. (View the site at: A University of Connecticut chemistry professor called the video on applying for undergraduate research opportunities “essential viewing” for his students.

With that success in hand, Crone applied for and received an Engineering Beyond Boundaries grant in 2007 to expand into engineering design courses. Her project team includes Chesler; Katie Cadwell, postdoctoral research associate in the Materials Research Science and Engineering Center (MRSEC); and Greta Zenner, director of education at MRSEC.

Through both projects, the MRSEC website features a combined 52 online videos covering research, design and professional opportunities topics — areas that are at the core of the engineering undergraduate experience. Crone is excited about the possibilities of this online library being applied across the spectrum of design and research courses in eight college departments.

Crone notes that as an engineering physics professor, she does not teach design. But that’s part of the beauty of Engineering Beyond Boundaries — giving faculty the incentive to experiment outside of their comfort zone.

“For me, it has been a permission slip to do the next cool thing,” she says.