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College's new LINKS program groups students for more effective learning

EPD 160 project group
LINKS students can take the Freshman Design Course, where these students designed a head cradle for a client with cerebral palsy. Larger Image

"Where's the value in being able to solve a chemical equation? Who cares whether it's an adjective or an adverb? What's the point of learning the differences between sine, cosine and tangent? How am I ever going to use this in the real world?"

Students often echo those or similar questions-especially when the homework is difficult, the first-year "intro" classes are lecture-hall-sized and the instructor seems somewhat inaccessible.

The College of Engineering recently launched a program that helps make learning easier, more personal and even fun for new engineering students.

About 90 students last fall participated in the college's new LINKS Program, which joins groups of freshmen in course "clusters"-groups of three basic courses. Twenty to 25 engineering students who share similar interests enroll in a cluster, and also comprise a discussion section, or "learning community," for each course. As a result, they meet and bond with other engineering students and faculty, work on group problems and learn in a supportive environment. Perhaps the biggest benefit, however, is that the courses are "linked": Students can relate the material they've learned in one course to what they learn in the others. For example, students can understand immediately how and why they apply mathematical equations to solve a real-life design problem.

LINKS is an offshoot of a larger effort to reform undergraduate engineering education, both at UW-Madison and at six universities nationwide. Together, the seven institutions comprise the Foundation Coalition, a cooperative of students and faculty working to accomplish the change.

"The Foundation Coalition is a response to national concerns that engineering education, in its traditional form, excludes students with certain learning styles, backgrounds and expectations," says Donald C. Woolston, assistant dean of pre-engineering. Given an education that considers those characteristics, more students probably would succeed, he says.

In addition, there is greater interest in helping research universities such as UW-Madison offer a smaller, friendlier, more effective undergraduate learning experience, says Michael L. Corradini, associate dean of engineering academic affairs. Action to change the engineering curriculum to provide an undergraduate education that's more personal, effective and relevant to students' interest began here in 1993, he says.

Mechanical Engineering Professor John W. Mitchell currently coordinates the college's reform efforts. "The main thrust is to develop a responsive curriculum," he says. "We need to assess the curriculum and make it more effective for constituents' needs. We need to link and integrate all parts of the curriculum and get as many faculty as possible involved in making these changes."

Faculty teams who represent the linked courses meet regularly. They discuss interdisciplinary connections in their subject matter, and how to present it to enhance students' comprehension of material taught in other linked courses. With this focus, students get the benefit of a well-rounded education, rather than one that's isolated and discipline-specific.

The purpose of cluster learning isn't to restrict the courses students can take. Quite the opposite, says Mitchell. "We link a variety of courses in two- or three-course clusters," he says. "The idea was to capture the benefits of linking the courses without the constraint of prescribing all that a student had to take. The UW is a big, but liberal arts university, and we believe that students should be able to choose the courses that suit them."

One of the coalition's objectives is to provide students with foundations in engineering problem-solving, design and teamwork that are integrated with the fundamentals of math and science. The UW-Madison team also hopes to help students develop these skills as the basis for conducting research and succeeding in engineering practice.

"An indirect benefit to this work is that we are becoming more competitive in recruiting top-notch undergraduates to UW-Madison," says Corradini. "This means we are getting better undergrads and they have a better undergrad learning experience."

So far, LINKS students and faculty have provided positive feedback. Laura R. Grossenbacher team-teaches Basic Communication & Engineering Ethics (EPD 155/EPD 690), a course that's included in two of the LINKS clusters. On her office desk sits a photograph depicting four female students in a group hug. As they "graduate" from the LINKS program, the photo reminds them-and Grossenbacher-of the friendship they developed as a result of their education. "The students are making the kinds of connections that we promised them they would make," Grossenbacher says.

Ramona Gunter, a researcher at the Engineering Learning Center, is collecting concrete evidence of the LINKS program's success through student focus groups. "Students really liked having their classes scheduled with the same people," she says. They've become friends, study together, walk to class together, and even socialize with each other. In other words, they fit in.

That "support group" is just one LINKS benefit. The students also attend an additional weekly discussion section with teaching assistants (TAs) from their LINKS classes. It's quality time. "The students have created an atmosphere where their work gets done well and on time," says math TA Andy Raich. "There isn't a question about forming study groups. They automatically work together."

The graduate student TAs a LINKS and a non-LINKS section of Math 222: Calculus and Analytic Geometry. He says his 18 LINKS students are significantly more lively and animated about the material. They also score well on exams: On one recent exam, only 17 out of 160-plus students received an "A." LINKS students earned eight of those As.

LINKS might not be for everyone (one student said he studied with others at his dorm and not with his fellow LINKS students). But, says Mitchell, soon the college hopes to offer a cluster-learning experience to all freshmen that wish to participate.

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