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Blended learning empowers engineers for life

By upending the structure of undergraduate courses, blended learning not only harnesses the convenience of online lectures, but helps students benefit from a sturdy educational principle.

“You learn something better by teaching it to someone else,” says Erica Hagen, who earned her BS in geological engineering at UW-Madison and currently researches engineering education as a PhD student.

The blended learning model frees up in-person class time for collaborative learning. Rather than lecturing, professors interact with students individually and in groups, modeling problem-solving approaches. In turn, students end up teaching each other, which Hagen calls “reciprocal learning.” When they do this, they aren’t simply reciting course materials; they’re getting their minds inside the workings of processes and problems.

“We’re making learning time more efficient,” she says. “They’re encouraged to ask questions and take their conversations to greater depths.”

Currently, the departments of Geological Engineering and Civil and Environmental Engineering offer undergrads four blended-learning classes each. Several take place at the Wendt Commons WisCEL space, which is designed to foster collaborative learning.

To “flip” a course challenges both instructors and students to get out of their academic comfort zone.  The course can require considerable re-working, and donor resources are used to help offset the initial costs for conversion such as development of online materials like lecture videos.

Wisconsin Distinguished Professor Craig Benson, chair of CEE and GLE, says donated resources also make it possible for people like Hagen to thoroughly study the impact of blended learning. What they find, Benson says, is that it gives struggling students greater opportunities to be successful and gives top students a greater opportunity to excel.

“Students learn more quickly and effectively, and faculty can deploy the course at lower costs,” Benson says.

Perhaps more importantly, Hagen is confident this approach to education will pay off for students long after they leave UW-Madison.

“When we look at what engineers have to do after they graduate, they have to do a lot of learning on the job,” Hagen says. “This blended learning format is trying to mimic that.”

Scott Gordon