Training course makes MATLAB work for undergrads
In spring 2013, undergraduates Lauren Brzozowski and Alyssa Morrow set out to fix a gap in engineering students’ computer training. They brought to fruition an effort by the College of Engineering Undergraduate Learning Center (ULC) and the UW-Madison Division of Information Technology, or DoIT, to give engineering students better training in the high-level computing language MATLAB.
“Many engineering courses use MATLAB, but not all majors have a course that thoroughly teaches students MATLAB,” says Brzozowski, a senior majoring in electrical and computer engineering.
That surely poses an obstacle for many students, since MATLAB is so widely used in engineering. The program’s applications in the engineering field include performing complex calculations, running simulations, crafting algorithms, and graphics processing.
DoIT previously offered a general MATLAB training. “However, it’s not geared toward engineering students,” says ULC Director Jennifer Binzley.
Even students who learn MATLAB in the context of specific courses can benefit from a more general, foundational training, she says. “There’s a difference between covering it in your class and actually having a hands-on training, where you hear things more than once, and you can ask someone if you get stuck,” Binzley says. “Having a training at the beginning of the semester sets students up for success.”
Morrow, a computer sciences senior and DoIT trainer, paired up with Brzozowski to create a MATLAB training that would better suit the needs of engineering undergrads.
“We contacted students and professors across all majors to figure out the key things they needed to know, and built our course from there,” Brzozowski says.
Brzozowski says the main challenge in designing the course was making it relevant to students with a variety of skill levels and majors.
“MATLAB can be hard for some students, and even the students who figure it out don’t always use the program in the most efficient way,” she says. “Often they can solve a given problem, but there’s a much, much easier way to do it.”
Morrow, who focused on the teaching part of the course, says that one of the crucial parts for her was talking about concepts that everyone could understand. "There was a great learning curve among the students,” she says.
And because she’s not an engineer, Morrow faced her own learning curve, in crafting examples and problems that engineering students could relate to.
The two-hour course debuted in spring 2013 at the WisCEL space in Wendt Commons and drew 150 students. ULC and DoIT used feedback from those courses to decide to divide the trainings into beginning and advanced groups. Binzley thought the course’s numbers would drop off in fall 2013, reasoning that there’d be less demand after so many students took the spring training. In fact, attendance went up to a total of 250 students.
While ULC and DoIT had previously discussed creating an engineering-specific MATLAB training, Binzley says Brzozowski and Morrow were responsible for making it actually happen. Not only did Morrow herself teach the trainings, but the two students did most of the coordination and preparation for the course.
“Their comprehensive attention was what made it successful,” Binzley says.