ME curriculum undergoes redesign
eginning this semester, when senior engineering students in ME’s capstone design course dream up a new device, they’ll be able not only to detail the invention on paper, but also to build it. Although the department continues to offer its traditional single semester in design, students can now enroll in a two-semester series. The extra semester should provide them with enough time to construct proof-of-concept and prototype devices in addition to creating drawings and specifications, says Professor Frank Fronczak, who played a major role in instituting the change.
Because the series is now open to all engineering undergraduates and graduate students, as well as those from other UW-Madison colleges and schools, it promises to give students valuable experience working with others of varying skill levels and backgrounds.
The two-semester design offering is just one change to emerge from an ongoing effort by faculty to improve the department’s curriculum. Although design coursework has been a focus, the goal of the endeavor is not simply to revamp the content of individual courses, says Professor Jay Martin.
Instead, faculty members have been working since 2001 to create a more comprehensive, systematic and continuous process of curriculum review and reform. Joining them in the effort is the ME Industrial Advisory Board (IAB), a group of alumni from top companies and academic institutions who provide guidance and support to the department.
Martin characterizes the initiative as “an experiment, a work in progress” that has met its fair share of bumps along the way. Still, some significant steps have been taken. Seeking to develop a department-wide educational philosophy to help guide future curriculum decisions, the faculty participated in a retreat at an off-campus location in 2002. After a day and a half of community-building exercises and discussions about instruction and learning, the faculty reached consensus on a set of 10 belief statements about teaching. The draft educational philosophy not only reflects their desire to provide undergraduates with a strong foundation in math, science, design and engineering tools, but also with an appreciation for engineering’s business aspects; an ability to communicate and manage projects effectively; to work in teams and think creatively; among other goals.
Recognizing that an outside assessment of its working philosophy could prove useful, the department invited the IAB to a second retreat in 2003. At this meeting, the board commented on the belief statements and worked with faculty to identify three curriculum areas of highest priority. The three the group agreed upon were design, computing tools and communication.Since then, faculty and IAB members have developed several ideas for enhancing the curriculum in these target areas and implemented a number of proposals. For example, besides the larger changes to ME’s design coursework, Fronczak and board member Oliver Julien of Madison-based Design Concepts are working to add information on project management and group decision-making methods to the design classes Fronczak teaches.
In addition, former board member Dave Miller of Quebecor World, collaborated with Professors Bob Rowlands and John Pfotenhauer, Sandy Courter and Laura Grossenbacher of Engineering Professional Development, and several other board and faculty members, to create a plan for improving the department’s instruction in communication. Through their efforts, a required technical communication course was moved to the start of the junior year and made a prerequisite for certain ME courses and labs. The change gives undergraduates a chance to hone the skills they learn in technical communication in their other classes. The team also created a standardized set of metrics and grading sheets to evaluate student presentation and writing skills.
In the realm of computing, Assistant Professor Greg Nellis worked with Richard Andersen of Wheel to Wheel, Inc., and others to orchestrate a comprehensive assessment of the department’s current curriculum. Based on their surveys of faculty, students and IAB members, the team has proposed several strategies for increasing the proficiency and knowledge of undergraduates in computing. The next step, says Nellis, will be to bring the curriculum options before the faculty.
These specific accomplishments, although important, are but steps on a larger path.
“The overall point of all of these efforts is to establish a process of continuous quality improvement for our undergraduate curriculum,” says Chair Neil Duffie. “A major initiative like this is never easy to implement. But it’s an important investment in the future of our department, our college, and most of all, the futures of the students we train.”