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Instructors innovating ISyE senior design

The new modern classroom: Students actively engage one another in team exercises.

Back in the 1950s, most classrooms looked the same: Rows upon rows of students faced a large chalkboard in the front of the room, from where the professor would lecture. More than 60 years later, advances in technology have had little effect on classroom layout; students with laptops still often sit in rows facing professors who lecture in front of whiteboards.

But not in the UW-Madison Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering. Rather, a group of ISyE faculty saw an opportunity to apply their knowledge to the modern classroom, using a blended learning, or “flipped,” classroom model in three ISyE senior design courses. Blended courses take advantage of technology and often consist of a mixture of online lectures and quizzes paired with in-class exercises, discussion and problem-solving. “We conducted some surveys of students and, overall, they really appreciate this blended learning model,” says Professor Raj Veeramani. “Instead of being passive listeners in the classroom, we have students who are actively engaged in discussion, problem solving, active inquiry and the application of the ideas that they’re learning.”

Professors Pascale Carayon and Veeramani and Professor Emeritus Harry Steudel believe senior design courses are a good fit for using a blended learning model. “By the time they get to be a senior, they’ve been introduced to many of the core concepts,” Veeramani says. “So these courses are really centered around honing students’ analytical thinking skills and challenging them to not only formulate solutions, but also evaluate and justify them.”

To “flip” the courses, faculty drew on funding from the college Engineering Beyond Boundaries (EBB) initiative. First, they created online learning modules, which use videos to introduce methods, concepts and ideas.

Students can watch the videos at their own pace before they come to class. A corresponding quiz within a module lets instructors assess students’ understanding of the material and review parts, if needed, before moving on.

In class, the faculty use the time for interactive team exercises or workshops, the creation of which is being funded by a 2013-2014 EBB grant. “We take great pride in providing our students with experiential learning in our department,” Veeramani says. ”With these workshops, we will help students apply their learning in a classroom setting and prepare them to approach real-world problems with confidence.”

Senior design students work together on open-ended, real-world projects that allow them to creatively approach problem solving from multiple perspectives—and the last piece in the shift to blended learning facilitates that collaboration.

ISyE is in the process of refurbishing multiple classrooms in the Mechanical Engineering Building to better suit the blended learning style. Among those changes is reconfigurable furniture that moves with the students and can change based on student—and instructor—needs.

Carayon, a human factors and ergonomics expert, says the physical environment can affect the learning climate within the room. “The physical set-up speaks a lot to the climate you want to create, and we want a more participatory climate,” she says. “When you have these rows, it’s not a participatory climate. It’s a human factors principle: The physical environment has to be adapted to meet the needs of the users."

John Steeno
2/12/2014