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Watch and learn

Engineering Outreach Program student Maria Del Pilar Noriega,
                        Prof. Tim Osswald, student Barbara Kenny and Prof. Bob Lorenz

From left to right Maria Del Pilar Noriega, Professor Tim Osswald, Barbara Kenny and Professor Bob Lorenz, stand in the Credit Courses at a Distance studio where engineering courses are recorded. (large image)

To earn a PhD is an impressive accomplishment. To earn one while working full time is all the more remarkable. Mix in raising children, a family move, or writing a book and directing a world-class research facility and the full challenge faced by two December graduates begins to become clear.

Barbara Kenny (PhD, electrical and computer engineering) and Maria Del Pilar Noriega (PhD, mechanical engineering) are the first two women to earn PhDs through the College of Engineering's Credit Courses at a Distance. In addition to intelligence and dedication, the two had another resource in common without which neither could have graduated — videotape.

The outreach program records courses taught by engineering faculty onto videotape. The tapes and course materials are mailed weekly to students at home or work. Some courses are sent via satellite through the National Technological University network.

While both Kenny and Noriega did spend some time studying on the UW-Madison campus, they say the videos made it possible for them to fit school into their busy work schedules.

Kenny works in the Electrical Systems Development Branch of NASA's Glenn Research Center in Cleveland.

"NASA has a PhD program in which they'll send you back to school for a year to finish up your coursework and meet the residency requirement and then you come back and do your dissertation work at the lab," she says. "I started to take courses toward a PhD through the video tape program."

Then, from 1994-'96, Kenny moved to Madison to take courses that were not offered on tape. Fortunately, her husband was able to transfer his work to Wisconsin. Their children, ages three and nine at the time, attended Madison schools. Outreach Program Manager Helene Demont helped the family find a home to rent while the Kennys found renters for their home in Ohio.

Kenny says knowledge gained in pursuit of her PhD has allowed her to understand new concepts and contribute new ideas to engineering challenges at NASA. Her research group is designing a flywheel energy storage system for use on the International Space Station. Her advisor, Electrical and Computer Engineering Professor Robert Lorenz, says that kind of exchange of ideas contributes to the college's mission of technology transfer.

"Technology transfer can be very difficult," says Lorenz. "With outreach, it's built in. It creates the right type of relationship. It gets industry to see that we're good people to work with. They look to us to give them new ideas and to help nurture their people to come up with new ideas. And they can see that the College of Engineering is good at it and we really know what's going on."

Noriega is no stranger to travel but commuting to Madison to attend classes was out of the question. As an extrusion expert and director of the extrusion division of the plastics and rubber institute ICIPC in Medellin, Colombia, Noriega spends six months a year traveling as an industrial consultant. She says viewing courses on tape worked well for her.

"You can concentrate better," she says. "I read the printed material first and then watched the video and next went to the homework. It's a really good system but it takes discipline,"

Discipline is not a problem for Noriega. After becoming the youngest person ever to graduate as a chemical engineer from the Universidad Pontificia Bolivariana-Medellin, Noriega earned degrees in polymer chemistry and polymer extrusion in Germany. When the German and Colombian governments formed a plastic and rubber research center with industry, Noriega was the natural choice to lead it.

Her advisor, Mechanical Engineering Professor Tim Osswald, says that during her PhD studies, Noriega not only submitted an excellent thesis, but also published a book on extrusion. Osswald says having one of the best minds in polymer extrusion earn her PhD from UW-Madison shows how the benefits of distance education flow both ways.

"It's that much harder for a woman in Colombia to reach the top of her profession," he says. "Maria is at the top and everyone recognizes it."

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