Adjunct professors help students bridge academic training and professional world

// Civil & Environmental Engineering

Tags: Educational Innovation

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In the spring semester’s first lecture of the senior capstone design class, instructor Mark Oleinik (BSCE ’76, MSCEE ’78) likes to show the civil and environmental engineering students a picture of a random pile of bricks. “That’s your brain,” he says.

Then comes a picture of a brick wall. “That’s your brain on capstone, after you’ve organized all of its pieces so that you end up with something,” he says. “Because ending up with something is what engineering is all about.”

The class challenges the seniors to put on the hat of a professional engineer for one semester and take a real-world project all the way from design to implementation. But they’re not in it alone.

Each team of four to five students typically works with two mentors, and many of these (including Oleinik) are adjunct professors at UW-Madison. CEE is proud—and perhaps unique in the country—to have not just a handful, but nearly 30 of them.

Rahel Desalegne, whose appointment began in fall 2015, has a simple summary for the value this group of practitioners brings to the department: priceless. “I think they are CEE’s hidden gem,” she says. “If you add the combined professional experience of these 28 people, you have almost 1,000 years of knowledge that’s being passed on to the next generation of engineers.”

Department chair David Noyce agrees wholeheartedly. “This group essentially doubles the size of our department,” he says. “Our adjunct professors love what they do, and their dedication shows in the quality and breadth of their contributions.”

The Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology Inc. (ABET) agreed as well, noting during its most recent department review that the level of involvement by practitioners was unique and contributed significant value to the training program.

The adjunct group has officially existed for about a decade, starting with former department chair Jeffrey Russell asking Michael Doran (BSME ’72, MSCEE ’74) in 2008 to become its first chair and Professor Greg Harrington to serve as its academic liaison. Russell’s goal was to formalize the connection between the department and the practitioners who were helping with its teaching mission.

Most adjunct professors are CEE graduates and have had (or still have) successful careers in the public or private sector in different specialties, such as transportation, construction, architecture, water, environmental or geological engineering. To better support its diverse goals, the group recently formed three committees: governance, integration of practice, and education.

The governance committee provides a framework for sharing and archiving information and practices for the benefit of future adjunct professors. The integration of practice committee, which Desalegne co-chairs with John Corbin, focuses on enhancing the students’ experience outside the classroom.

This fall, for example, the committee hosted an inaugural CEE Discovery Series workshop called “World of Water,” where short presentations by a mixed panel of academics and professionals were followed by a Q&A session with an audience of more than 100. As a native of Ethiopia who received her academic training in Germany, Desalegne also brings a wealth of international connections to the adjunct faculty group.

The education committee, which Oleinik co-chairs with Kathryn Huibregtse, focuses on curriculum development and classroom teaching and mentoring. While the adjunct faculty are involved in a wide range of instructional activities, two classes rely especially heavily on their support: the senior capstone design course (Civ Engr 578), which has been held every semester since fall 2001; and the freshman design practicum (Inter Engr 170), which the adjunct faculty helped develop and teach for the first time in fall 2016.

“Most students in the College of Engineering are now required to take this freshman course, which provides an introduction to the process of team-based design,” Doran says. It helps students decide on their major, and often their specialty within that major, as they are exposed to the whole breadth of the engineering profession.

The senior capstone design course typically requires at least 10 additional mentors and judges for the students’ final presentations. Their projects range from the design of parks and buildings, including Taliesin, the estate of American architect Frank Lloyd Wright, and Lake Monona’s waterfront in Madison; to wastewater, stormwater and drinking water infrastructure; to wind farms and historic landmarks.

Some capstone teams have won national accolades, such as a first prize at the industry-sponsored North American Design Competition and a “Rising Star” award from a competition sponsored by the American Society of Heating, Refrigeration, and Air Conditioning Engineers.

According to Jo Tucker (BSCE ’77; MSCE ’85, University of Louisville), who is the adjunct group’s current chair, all members enjoy their interactions with the students, whether they involve formal teaching or informal mentoring. “It’s really fun to see a young person learn, grow and take charge of their work world,” she says. “Helping to educate the future of the civil and environmental engineering profession allows us to give back to the department that has shaped our own careers.”

Author: Silke Schmidt