Educational innovation: showcasing past triumphs and planning for the future

// College of Engineering

Tags: active learning, education, Educational Innovation, engineering education, Grainger Institute, technology, Wisconsin Institute for Discovery

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UW-Madison officially established the Department of Theoretical and Practical Engineering in 1857—and in the intervening years, teaching has come a long way. Held April 22, 2016, the College of Engineering Education Innovation Showcase was an event that both commemorated a long commitment to student learning and laid out visions for the future.

“The goals of the showcase were to celebrate the College of Engineering’s tradition of educational innovation, and to create excitement around planning the next phase,” says Barry Van Veen, Lynn H. Matthias Professor in electrical and computer engineering and chair of the college’s Education Innovation Committee.

Soliciting input on the proposed makerspace.
Soliciting input on the makerspace. Photo: Stephanie Precourt

That palpable excitement was on full display among some-170 individuals perusing more than 30 posters that described such creative endeavors as a class for juniors that relied on blended learning and LEGO robots to teach design fundamentals. Participants also gave input on the college’s forthcoming makerspace, opening in 2017. Attendees posted written suggestions to optimize the educational impact of the space, to recommend policies to govern its use, and to request equipment. Attendees also could observe a selection of possible equipment firsthand such as the 3D printers and laser scanners from MakerBot, Afinia, Stratysis and MarkForged, among others, set up outside the DeLuca Forum of the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery, where the showcase was held.

Amidst the excitement, the showcase maintained its focus on one overarching question: How do we provide the best possible education for tomorrow’s engineers?

Dave Franchino, delivering the keynote address
Dave Franchino, delivering the keynote.
Photo: Stephanie Precourt

“Engineering education has always reflected the profound challenges of its time,” said keynote speaker Dave Franchino (BMSE ’85), president of the Madison-based strategic innovation firm Design Concepts. “Hard problems are not unique to today, but today’s problems are unique.”

The interconnected and fast-moving 21st century presents unprecedented challenges for engineers. Technologies have improved exponentially since the 1800s; today the machine shop boasts 3D printers and laser-etchers instead of pole-driven woodturning lathes.

But sophisticated technology alone doesn’t make for outstanding engineers. Today’s engineer must develop creative solutions to complex and large-scale problems that often involve competing social, economic, environmental and technological factors.

Teaching creative thinking is itself a challenging undertaking—students need opportunities to try and fail, try again, and be active participants in the learning process in both the classroom and the laboratory.

One of the many posters on display.
One of the many posters on display.
Photo: Stephanie Precourt

The College of Engineering Education Innovation Committee supports a vast array of efforts to enhance engineering education within the college. Many of the people who have been successful with educational innovation were on hand to share their experiences with attendees. Some professors converted large introductory courses into fully flipped modes, in which students watch the lectures online and use class time to work on problems in small groups with instructor coaching. Others reported innovative laboratory methods for engaging students. The developers of a series of workshops called I-LEaP, designed to introduce faculty members to active learning methodologies, were also present. All of the innovative undertakings on display at the showcase shared a goal of demonstrable effectiveness.

“Innovation sometimes implies doing wild and crazy things, but the committee really promotes evidence-based best practices for teaching and learning,” says Van Veen. “The innovation part is in translating those practices to the Wisconsin culture and making them work in our curriculum.”

Students have access to top-of-the line equipment in their classes.
Students use advanced equipment in their classes.
Photo: Stephanie Precourt

Some of the equipment that students currently use in their coursework was on display. Leading advanced manufacturing researcher and Mechanical Engineering Assistant Professor Natalie Rudolph noted that state-of-the-art equipment like 3D printers not only provide learning opportunities for students, but also can create innovative new teaching resources.

“One student made tactile sheet music for the visually impaired, and another created a scale-model topographic map of the United States,” she said. “When teachers imagine materials for classroom demonstrations, 3D printing can help turn those ideas into reality.”

3D printing could produce classroom materials. Photo: Stephanie Precourt
3D printed teaching materials.
Photo: Stephanie Precourt

Beyond gaining creative problem solving abilities, engineers must also learn to effectively communicate.

“The ability to paint a vivid picture of what the future could look like is the difference between a game-changing innovation making it into society or languishing due to lack of funding or bureaucratic gridlock,” said Franchino in his keynote address.

In the service of training undergraduates to convey rich stories, Dane Morgan, the Harvey D. Spangler Professor in materials science and engineering, is helping to plan a dedicated next-generation data visualization facility in the first floor of Wendt Commons. At the showcase, Morgan had his laptop on hand to solicit input on the proposed space. Comments ran the gamut, from technical specifications to requests that the facility be open as many hours as possible and that it be equipped with video-conferencing capabilities to enable intercollegiate collaborations.

Reflecting on the event, Van Veen noted that all the members of the Education Innovation Committee–Dan Klingenberg, Trina McMahon, Wayne Pferdehirt, Heidi Ploeg, Raj Veeramani, Paul Voyles, Justin Williams, and Jake Blanchard–put in tremendous effort to organize and host the Showcase. He also expressed deep gratitude for administrative support from the College of Engineering and the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery. He expressed optimism for the College of Engineering’s pioneering approach to undergraduate education to permeate throughout the entire University. “We started some new conversations here,” he said. “Hopefully as time goes on, discussions will continue not only in Engineering, but also across campus.”

Van Veen acknowledges that implementing educational innovation often requires significant effort on the part of instructors, but he was encouraged by the strong cohort of attendees and high level of interest.

“In the end, seeing the benefits for students makes everything worth it,” says Van Veen. “That’s what gives us, as educators, the motivation and energy to put in the hard work.”

Author: Sam Million-Weaver