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Engineers in Internet master's degree program visit campus

MEPP team builds robot.
Ann Moore, left, works with a group member to assemble a robot. The activity, which focused on building teamwork skills, was part of the Master of Engineering in Professional Practice program's weeklong summer residency. Larger Image

Bruce Dennert and Ann Moore encountered a typical situation on the UW-Madison campus last week. Not only did they meet their new classmates, they were introduced to a rigorous fall syllabus. What makes their experience unusual is that it's one of only a couple of visits students in their distance-degree program will make to campus; instead, they'll earn their masters' degrees in two years via interactive Internet-based courses.

Dennert, a power train engineering manager at Harley-Davidson, and Moore, a design engineer at Kraft Foods, joined more than 50 of their classmates during a weeklong residency for the college's Master of Engineering in Professional Practice (MEPP) program. It was one of only a couple of visits students in the distance-degree program will make to campus; instead, they'll earn their masters' degrees in two years via interactive Internet-based courses. The degree, which is the only complete UW-Madison graduate degree delivered via the Internet, is designed for early to mid-career engineers who are planning to continue working in a technical capacity and want to improve their professional skills.

A 27-year veteran at his company and a typical program participant, Dennert explained that his staff included many new engineering graduates who possessed new and modern skills. "Sometimes in a managerial position, it's very difficult to stay up on current trends," he said. "I wanted to be able to talk the language they're talking and understand what they're experiencing. When I looked at this program, it really fit the bill for what I needed."

Students spend about 20 hours each week studying and participating in regular, live teleconferences and exchanging lessons over the Internet. The program, which will have its first graduates next May, emphasizes such areas as project management, business operations, communications, computer applications and international engineering. Then once a year, classmates meet to conclude the summer coursework and become acquainted with fall courses, a practice that helps them develop a clear understanding of the program goals and course requirements. Because students are admitted and progress through the program as a group, the engineers also use this time to build relationships that help them maximize program benefits.

"This has been a very interesting week in that we are going to be studying together for the next two years," said Moore. "This is the only time we'll be face to face. I thought it was great that the professors were here to spend time with us. This week has just been really good."

The program's independent-learning format gives practicing engineers like Moore the freedom to access course information at their convenience and take classes while continuing to work full time. "Location, job responsibilities, travel demands and family needs often stand in the way of pursuing graduate education," said Wayne Pferdehirt. Pferdehirt is a faculty associate in the college's Department of Engineering Professional Development and the program's director. "To overcome these barriers, the program is designed to allow students to earn a top-quality master's degree from their location using time available in their schedule."

Pferdehirt explained that the program curriculum was developed based on an extensive needs analysis survey of practicing engineers across the United States. MEPP is unique because all of its courses have been specially designed for web-based distance delivery-as opposed to on-campus lectures subsequently made available through the Internet-that meets remote learners' needs. One of the program's mottoes is "Learn today as you will work tomorrow." The web-based design of all MEPP courses teaches students how to effectively use the Internet for collaboration, teamwork and access to online engineering resources.

"One of the things that attracted me to the MEPP program is that it's up to date with the tools used by modern engineers," said Dennert. "A key aspect of the program was the ability to work remotely-that, in combination with the actual courses, really filled a desire I had to move forward in my career."

The program has included engineers from as far away as Florida, Alaska and even Mexico. Many participants travel extensively, often to Europe or Asia. As long as they have their laptop and Internet access, continued progress in their coursework is no problem. Students say MEPP courses will provide them with the knowledge and skills to make them not only more effective engineers, but enhance their leadership skills, too. Employers represented in this fall's incoming class include Boeing, Harley-Davidson, Kohler Company, Mercury Marine and GE Medical Systems.

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