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Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering

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Engineering quality into undergraduate education

Patricia Flatley Brennan

Patricia Flatley Brennan (12K JPG)

Three students at a conference table

Preparing ISyE students for employment in today's shifting industry landscape is the goal behind a new initiative to enhance the quality of the department's undergraduate curriculum, says Professor Patti Brennan, who is heading the effort.

New industry segments, especially the service, health care and information systems sectors, have emerged and matured. Manufacturers focus more frequently on improving quality, rather than simply on reducing costs. And companies are demanding graduates who are committed to life-long learning and who can function well in multicultural settings.

In response to these trends, Brennan, Chair Harry Steudel and Professors Raj Veeramani and Shiyu Zhou are leading the department in a comprehensive review and redesign of its academic program for undergraduates. The effort will also involve advisory committees, composed of faculty, current and former ISyE students, and industry representatives, which will help both to assess the department's current curriculum and develop strategies for improving it.

"Our department has a strong tradition in this type of undertaking," says Steudel. "It's part of our overall commitment to continuous quality improvement." The department last overhauled its undergraduate program about eight years ago.

ISyE's first priority is to give students a more solid grounding in the tools, trends and issues in emerging industries like health care and information systems. To do so, it needs look no further than its faculty's own research expertise.

"We consistently receive the most research funding of any comparable industrial engineering department in the country, particularly in health systems," says Brennan. "But you don't really see that research strength reflected in our undergraduate curriculum."

To remedy this, the department has already finalized a new health systems engineering course that will be part of the core curriculum for undergraduates. It will also look to add undergraduate courses in information systems and quality engineering — disciplines in which the department boasts top-notch research programs, but where classes for undergraduates are either limited or lacking altogether.

ISyE also wants to enhance its already excellent coursework in design. Students are currently required to spend 15 credit hours learning to devise processes, components and systems that meet client needs. But the overall program of coursework tends to lack structure and coherence, says Brennan.

"Students are well trained in the key components of design, such as brainstorming techniques, systems analysis, and sourcing and evaluating new solutions, but there's no synthesis of these topics," she says.

As a solution, the department has proposed that students assemble their design projects into a single portfolio, which they would maintain and add to throughout their college careers. Students could periodically review the portfolios with their coursework advisors to identify any gaps in their design backgrounds, says Brennan. Graduates could also use the collection of floor plans, layouts, and other design products to demonstrate their skills to potential employers.

"We also believe this approach could help to stimulate lifelong learning," she says. "Hopefully the portfolios could be built so that they would stay with students for the rest of their lives."

In addition to engaging students and industry people in the curriculum reform process, ISyE will enlist the help of the College of Engineering's nationally renowned LEAD (Learning through Evaluation, Adaptation and Dissemination Center) Center. At the beginning of the project, the center will help ISyE collect and summarize information on the strengths and drawbacks of its current curriculum. LEAD will then develop measurement tools and processes, so that once the redesigned curriculum program is in place, the department can receive useful and timely feedback on the impact of its reforms.

In the meantime, the department has begun moving the new initiative forward. In addition to finalizing a new core health care systems course for undergraduates, a committee has already reviewed the prerequisite classes for each required course for the ISyE degree. Steudel will also experiment with technology-enhanced learning when he converts a lecture course to streaming video format this summer.

The entire curriculum overhaul is expected to be completed by the time the college undergoes its next round of professional accreditation by ABET (the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology) in Fall 2006.


ISyE NEWS is published twice a year for alumni and other friends of the UW-Madison Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering. This publication is paid for with private funds.

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Date last modified: Thursday, 30-Jun-2005 11:49:13 CDT
Date created: 30-Jun-2005