Active, engaging education. Anywhere. And right here.

Share this story:
Giri Venkataramanan

Engineering Media Services staff videotape a course taught by Professor Giri Venkataramanan. Photo: James Kraus. 

In every building on the College of Engineering campus, there are classrooms and lecture halls packed with students listening to lectures. Yet, increasingly, that very traditional way of learning is not the only way UW-Madison engineering students are learning.

“The 50-minute lecture is one of the most inefficient methods for human learning to occur,” says John Booske, the Duane H. and Dorothy M. Bluemke professor of electrical and computer engineering. “Permanent memory is—for most of us—limitless, but it all has to go through working memory, which is a very limited cache process. We process knowledge best in chunks.”

And the College of Engineering is paying attention, drawing on a suite of hands-on, collaborative, cultural and technological tools to meet the educational needs and expectations of today’s students—the “digital natives.” At the same time, it is preparing well-rounded engineers who can think innovatively and take the lead in solving some of the world’s largest problems.

Driving forces

The demand for multidisciplinary, multi-mode learning continues to rise among today’s students, and satisfying it while offering complementary world-class hands-on student experiences is a matter of staying globally competitive. “In order to prepare the next generation of engineers, we need to teach them in a way that represents the world they’ll be living and working in,” says College of Engineering Dean Paul Peercy.

The nature of that world is wired, mobile and immediate. According to Pew Internet and American Life Project reports, undergraduate student technology and Internet use is virtually ubiquitous: 98 percent of students use the Internet frequently, 93 percent have high-speed Internet connections, 92 percent connect wirelessly to the Internet, while 63 percent use their smartphone to connect to the Internet.

As to how all that connectivity figures into campus life, University of Washington researchers interviewed 560 students at 11 campus libraries and learned that technology is key in student learning habits. They use Facebook to arrange study groups, smartphones to capture lectures for repeated listening, and YouTube tutorials as references for solving difficult problem sets. Electronic course materials—both official and unofficial—factor heavily into their learning processes. “I am no longer bound by what the professor gives me in a class, and his perspective on something,” said one student quoted in the study. “There are lots of engineering forums that I can just Google.”

The College of Engineering is taking a more strategic approach to providing high-value electronic content. Here, this educational culture change has foundations in Engineering Beyond Boundaries, a college initiative begun in 2005 in large part to address factors—including technology acceleration and the fusion of disciplines, global competition in education, and shifts in funding for sustaining higher education—in our rapidly changing world. Its goal is to adopt approaches that move education and research beyond disciplinary, cultural and technological boundaries.

Under the initiative, the college has funded nearly 50 innovative projects—among them a course that combines biology and engineering, new tools for teaching statics, video lectures on the core principles of design, a certificate program in sustainability, and a certificate that blends engineering and the arts.

However, as effective as the projects were, their impact largely was limited to a single course here and there, says Steve Cramer, College of Engineering associate dean for academic affairs and a professor of civil and environmental engineering. “If we were really going to change how engineering is taught at Wisconsin, it couldn’t just be in a brand new, ‘one-off’ elective course,” he says. “It had to hit the core of our courses, and it had to be implemented in a sustainable way.”

Thus, the college Academic Planning Council, with encouragement from the college Industrial Advisory Board, set a new strategic directive: moving 75 percent of engineering core courses to a new “blended learning” model that leverages video-captured lectures and web-based course management tools to enhance in-class instruction. It’s an ambitious goal that aims to use college-wide technology-support services to help instructors replicate prior successes in technology-enhanced courses. 

Girl studying

Mobile Studio lab kits are portable, meaning students can experiment anywhere. Photo: Mark Riechers.

Time well spent
In the College of Engineering, Wendt Commons—a recent merger of the Engineering Learning Center, Wendt Library and Engineering Media Services—offers instructors not only pedagogical insight, but also technological expertise that ranges from video lecture capture services to support for web-based teaching software.

Greg Moses was among those who, early on, recognized the potential of blended learning approaches. “There’s a pathological fear that student performance will worsen if you don’t lecture to them,” says Moses, the Harvey D. Spangler professor of engineering physics and a blended learning pioneer. “But there’s no evidence of that.”

In fact, online video lectures enable instructors to improve and increase their one-on-one time with students. It’s a model Moses—who with researcher Mike Litzkow developed the eTEACH web multimedia delivery tool—has followed for more than a decade. On their own time and at their own pace, students can watch online lectures to learn basic facts, then come to class prepared to ask questions, discuss concepts, and participate in group problem-solving exercises.

Shifting lectures online also allows instructors to do more with fewer resources. Hussain Bahia, a professor of civil and environmental engineering, used on-demand video lecture modules and lab tutorials to transform a high-demand civil and environmental engineering course without sacrificing student-instructor “face time.” And Dan Klingenberg, a professor of chemical and biological engineering, and colleagues consolidated three distinct fluid mechanics courses into a single multidisciplinary course by breaking lectures into topics, rather than 50-minute chunks. Now, instead of lecturing each week, professors attend discussions in which students apply general concepts from lectures to their particular engineering discipline.

As in the fluid mechanics course, online lectures also afford instructors like Booske the flexibility to spend in-class time helping students apply course concepts. “I walk around the classroom as a coach,” he says. “I keep them on task, using more of a Socratic method—rather than telling them the answers.”

Hands-on connections
Technology-aided instruction isn’t limited to web-based learning. Seeing an opportunity to improve the experience for his introductory lab courses, Electrical and Computer Engineering Associate Faculty Associate Mark Allie moved his students from traditional lab work to Mobile Studio, a portable lab kit that originated in 2007 with Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute Professor and electrical and computer engineering alumnus Ken Connor. When paired with a laptop, Mobile Studio can simulate all the equipment Allie’s students need for basic experiments with current, voltage and frequency. “Students can do everything with just the Mobile Studio board, with minor exceptions,” he says. “We’re reinforcing concepts from lecture, so we can easily cover the material with a USB-based device.”

And, Mobile Studio lab kits are inexpensive and portable, giving students independent access to lab tools, encouraging them to learn at their own pace, and even allowing them to creatively experiment on their own time.

Rethinking the classroom

Housed jointly on the fourth floor of Wendt Commons and in space across campus in College Library, the Wisconsin Collaboratory for Enhanced Learning Center, or WisCEL, offers a more sophisticated suite of technological tools, including wall-mounted video monitors and circular clusters of workstations that hold laptops for each student. During the day, instructors use those spaces as flexible, collaborative classrooms that make teaching more spontaneous and personal than a traditional lecture hall.

Flexible spaces like WisCEL also allow instructors to rethink every aspect of conventional teaching—including something as basic as office hours—to offer students experiences that better suit their needs as developing engineers. Engineering Physics Associate Professor Robert Witt, who teaches statics—a course among the toughest undergrad engineering courses—began holding office hours in WisCEL. “Other students were always there, so we could help each other out or listen to the answer of another student’s questions,” says Melissa Markquart, a civil and environmental engineering senior who took Witt’s spring 2012 course.

In fact, the students who traditionally would have lined up for help outside Witt’s office often spontaneously morphed into a unique “breakout” study session. And the collaborative space also encouraged students to be inquisitive and engage with their instructor. “Asking questions during lecture can be intimidating,” says Markquart. “Professor Witt’s willingness to do his office hours this way signaled to me that he cared about the students and our learning.”

Whether they occur in a flexible technology-rich study space, in a blended course or through other innovative teaching approaches, experiences like Markquart’s enhance the relationship students have with their instructors, engage them in the material, and ultimately, better prepare them to thrive in a global economy. “Not only do technology-enhanced learning experiences enable us to use our limited resources more efficiently, but we also are able to reach students in a way that is meaningful to them,” says Peercy. “By creatively adapting our educational delivery methods, we are demonstrating to students the emphasis we place on providing them a high-quality, high-value educational experience. And they will graduate from UW-Madison knowing they have the skills and knowledge to make a difference today—and in the future.” 

Mark Riechers