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New master's program for practicing engineers

Graduate education's total-immersion agenda packed with research and teaching assignments can seem like a daunting life-style change for most working professionals.

A new World Wide Web-based master's degree created by the College of Engineering may solve that problem by allowing professionals to advance their careers without interrupting them.

The Master of Engineering in Professional Practice (MEPP), slated to begin in summer 1999, represents what many see as the next wave in graduate education: capstone-style degree programs that take instruction to the professional. Laptop computers will replace lecture halls, allowing students to complete assignments in the office, at home or on the road.

"We recognize that we may not be the center of (students') universe -- that's very different from a traditional master's program," says Karen Al-Ashkar, an adviser in Engineering Professional Development. "These students will have a lot of different priorities, all of which are important."

While traditional graduate education stresses research, MEPP students will take a different track, she says. The curriculum, likened to an engineer's version of an MBA, focuses on technical and organizational skills critical to modern engineers. These include computer applications, project planning and communication skills.

Engineers no longer work in isolation, dealing only with technical issues, Al-Ashkar said. They are often required to work extensively with customers, suppliers and government regulators.

This program pulls together many of the higher-level skills engineers need to move ahead in this new environment, she says. Often, those skills are not covered in undergraduate engineering programs.

Thomas W. Smith, director of engineering telecommunications programming, says the advances in web technology will give the course a real-time, interactive quality. The web is redefining distance education by shifting from traditional video-taped lectures to something much more adaptable to off-campus students, he says.

Computer literacy will be a continual focus in the program. "A lot of the horsepower sitting on desktops today didn't exist when our prospective students were in school," Smith says. "We put considerable emphasis on new applications."

After a one-month opening course on network skills--essentially learning how to learn by computer--students can make use of features like threaded discussions, networked e-mail and teleconferencing tools to keep in touch with faculty and students.

Courses will include computer-aided problem-solving, technical project management, communicating technical information and quality management. The second year will include a collaborative project with teams of students.

Smith says his department developed the degree concept by talking to engineers from the more than 400 short courses EPD offers each year. To test their ideas and define the coursework, they created a straw curriculum and surveyed about 8,000 recent engineering graduates.

Michael L. Corradini, associate dean for academic affairs in the college, sees MEPP as part of a larger trend in engineering to meet the increasing demand for distance learning. The college has two other graduate programs approved this year--technical Japanese, and polymer science and engineering -- that cater to the professional in the field.

The engineering programs are following a successful UW-Madison model in administrative medicine, which has offered a web-based advanced degree for years, he says. Like medicine, engineering is a field with near-constant change, and continued education is essential.

Corradini speculates that about 50 percent of future enrollment growth in engineering graduate programs will be in this professional track. Industry has been looking more to universities to help with their training needs, and some companies have farmed out their training programs to campuses.

"People are becoming more educationally aware and want to continue their studies. They may also be rewarded by their employers for doing so," Corradini says. "We think there is going to be growing demand among engineers who want a master's degree, but don't want to do research."

For information on the MEPP degree, phone 800/462-0876 or visit the website: mepp.engr.wisc.edu.

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