A newsletter for alumni, students, and friends of the Mechanical Engineering Department at the University of Wisconsin-Madison

Faculty Become Better Teachers by Focusing on How Learning Occurs

Professors Farrell and Mitchell Lead National Workshops

What began as a PhD thesis for an industrial engineering student five or six years ago has grown to a campus-wide program that helps faculty sharpen their teaching skills. And two ME professors who are program advisors, Patrick V. Farrell and John W. Mitchell, have been traveling to other universities to explain how it works.

That PhD student, Katherine Sanders, wanted to know if faculty would change their perspective on teaching, and presumably their techniques, after receiving some training. The idea took root and blossomed from an in-depth seminar to a College of Engineering program. Along the way, it made a crucial shift in emphasis--from teaching to learning. Participants discovered that if they looked at the process from the students' perspective, at how learning actually occurs, that better teaching would follow.

Two years ago the program, Creating a Collaborative Learning Environment, expanded to include the entire UW-Madison campus, inviting faculty from all departments to participate. According to Professor Farrell, about 50 faculty volunteers are involved at any one time. They meet weekly for an hour and a half to discuss and come to grips with what it takes to learn. A facilitator supplies resources and research studies but the real work is done collaboratively by the faculty who develop a deeper understanding of the learning process.

In the second year of the CCLE program, participants focus on implementation, including classroom experimentation and sharing ideas with their fellow group members. "They get into the habit of implementing these ideas and working with their colleagues," said Farrell. "They become a real community of faculty who share understanding because they've gone through this together."

Because the program has been working successfully on the UW campus, the American Society of Engineering Education asked Farrell, Mitchell, and CCLE Director Katherine Sanders (that original PhD student) to share their experiences at workshops for other schools of engineering. So far, they have been to the University of Virginia and the State University of New York at Buffalo. "It's interesting to see how different campuses are, how open they are to new ideas and how younger faculty react when their dean is involved. It's also interesting that few experts on teaching engineering are engineers," Farrell said.

Back at the UW, Farrell said that engineering faculty continue to join the program, including about half the ME faculty, more than any other engineering department. Many other projects have grown out of CCLE too--EPD 160, Introduction to Engineering, the freshman design course, as well as peer review of teaching working groups, for example. The peer review group has set up guidelines for individuals or departments to use in designing their own peer review programs. Farrell and Sanders are currently giving seminars on this concept now and how a diverse faculty group might work together to accomplish the peer review goal.

The only difficulty with CCLE, said Farrell, lies in convincing outsiders. "Generally, when we present our reports, nobody believes that CCLE works," said Farrell, "especially that faculty actually volunteer rather than being paid or somehow externally rewarded to join."

ME Newsletter is a periodic publication of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Department of Mechanical Engineering. Correspondence should be sent to the address below.

ME Newsletter
Department of Mechanical Engineering
University of Wisconsin-Madison
1513 University Avenue
Madison, WI 53706-1572

      Editor: Gail Gawenda

Designer: Lynda Litzkow

Last Modified: Monday, 15-Feb-1999 12:00:00 CST

DECEMBER 1998 Contents