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Distance-degree students visit campus

The first 25 students in the Master of Engineering in Professional Practice (MEPP) program cast their computers aside and came to campus Aug. 22-27 for a weeklong residency. It was one of only a couple of visits students in the distance-degree program will make to campus; instead, they'll earn their masters' degrees in two years via interactive Internet-based courses. The students already have a summer semester under their belts.

Although many departments offer Web-based courses, MEPP is the only complete UW-Madison graduate degree delivered via the Internet. It emphasizes such areas as project management, business operations, communications, computer applications and international engineering. The program's independent-learning format gives practicing engineers the freedom to access course information at their convenience and take classes while continuing to work full time.

First MEPP class

Students enrolled in MEPP, a graduate program delivered via the Internet, came to campus from across the country to meet each other, faculty and staff, and to become more familiar with the program's structure. (large image)

"The program curriculum has been developed based on an extensive needs analysis survey of practicing engineers across the United States," says Wayne P. Pferdehirt, the program's director. He says MEPP is unique because all of its courses have been specially designed for Web-based distance delivery-as opposed to on-campus lectures subsequently made available through the Internet-that meets remote learners' needs.

In addition, says Pferdehirt, students are admitted and progress through the program as a group, or cohort, which allows them to build relationships that facilitate team projects and strengthens their sense of a learning community. Their assignments help students apply concepts, strategies and tools to their work as engineers.

The program has attracted engineers from as far away as Florida and Alaska. They say MEPP courses will provide them with the knowledge and skills to make them not only more effective engineers, but enhance their leadership skills, too.

"MEPP provides something I haven't found in other (distance-degree) programs," says student Eric Fidler. He says it's difficult to find a program that merges an engineering degree with management-oriented courses. A product safety engineer for Grove Worldwide, based in Shady Grove, Pennsylvania, Fidler says he chose MEPP not only because it filled his educational needs, but because his location and work demands made traditional classroom coursework nearly impossible.

Many of the students' employers support their on-line efforts. Susan Bucheger's employer, Mercury Marine of Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, has provided her with resources like a headset telephone and special Internet connection so she can study at work. When she's on the road-which is quite often-she's able to dial in to the university and continue her coursework on a laptop.

She's surprised at how much MEPP students interact on-line, both with each other and the program's faculty. "There's a neat camaraderie going on," she says. "I think people have made an effort to open up and share because it's a distance." When early on she was feeling a little overwhelmed by the prospect of taking courses via the Internet, others in the class helped reassure her by sharing their own apprehensions.

Student Aaron Burgmeier, who earned an electrical engineering degree just three-and-a-half years ago, plans to use the group's interaction to keep him on track. "I expect to learn from fellow students' experiences-to define my own learning strategies and my own career," he says. He welcomed the chance to talk with those people face to face at the recent residency. "Meeting with faculty and students has been a very positive experience. They're so into it [the program] that I think it'll be a good experience for me."

Some students already are experiencing the benefits of distance education. Tim Webster moved from California to accept a position as a mechanical engineer for Todd Combustion in Connecticut. Webster says that unlike a friend who also was offered an attractive job elsewhere but turned it down to complete a degree in California, MEPP's Web-based format enabled him to move across the country and not miss a thing. Juan Gutierrez, a Houston, Texas-based MEPP student, says he wasn't worried when his company discussed relocating him to France-after all, he completed his summer courses, including a real-time audiographics session, from his company's office in London.

But as with other distance-degree programs, the road to graduation from MEPP can be a bit rocky-although the obstacles aren't always academic. "It's lots of work and lots of lost personal time," says Fidler. "But before even starting the program I knew that if there wasn't a balance, if there wasn't time for all three (work, family and school), then I'd be doing a disservice to all of them."

Bucheger says she's still getting used to juggling her work, family life and free time, but feels the program's 20-hour-per-week workload is doable. "I believe that anyone who has a busy family life will do well with this program," she says.

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