Knowledge retention: IE students sharpen skills while helping rural school district

// Industrial & Systems Engineering

Photo of a student working during in-person learning

A student works during in-person learning at Adams-Friendship Elementary School. Photo courtesy Adams-Friendship School District.

When recent University of Wisconsin-Madison graduate Bailey Benck worked at a manufacturer in Waukesha, Wisconsin, as part of a cooperative education program, he found himself applying process improvement techniques to problems straight from his industrial engineering courses.

Photo of Baily Benck
Bailey Benck

But when Benck and three classmates from ISyE 515: Engineering Management of Continuous Process Improvement took on a project during the fall 2020 semester to improve teacher retention and recruitment in a rural school district in central Wisconsin, they discovered a very different way to apply those concepts.

“In class, we don’t talk about how these tools can be applied to a school district,” says Benck, who graduated in December 2020. “Our project really forced us to establish that deep understanding of the tools we learned and developed, and how to use and apply them to a little bit less traditional situation.”

Benck and groupmates Joshua Fernandez, Dom Maderal and Reid Parks sharpened their command of industrial engineering tools while delivering actionable recommendations for the Adams-Friendship School District, which serves roughly 1,500 students and sits an hour-and-a-half drive north of the UW-Madison campus. The project was part of UniverCity Alliance, a UW-Madison research and outreach effort that connects faculty, staff and students to tangible issues facing local communities. UniverCity’s three-year partnership with Adams County started in 2019.

Teacher retention was a particular issue for Adams-Friendship in 2018 and 2019, when the district lost roughly 20% of its teaching staff each summer. That made it the top priority for Adams-Friendship District Administrator Tom Wermuth when he took over in 2019, though the district’s attrition rate bounced back to a more typical level in 2020.

To identify underlying causes, the industrial engineering students gathered input from district administration and surveyed the full teaching staff. Then, using industrial engineering methodologies, they distilled those responses into unifying themes and set about generating ideas for tactics to address those issues, balancing what could be done in a semester with the potential impact.

In the end, their recommendations included new leadership training, school and district value-defining workshops, goal-setting activities and streamlined internal communications. Empowering teacher voices to enhance their sense of investment in the district was a common thread. The qualitative nature of the project and the complexities of working on, as Benck puts it, “one big people-oriented system” necessitated multifaceted strategies to encourage long-term change.

“Culture change work is hard,” adds Maderal, a senior who will graduate in May 2021.

But the students say tackling such a challenging assignment in the course, taught by senior lecturer Terry Mann, has given them enduring lessons to carry forward into their careers.

“If you can get your hands dirty in a real system, especially a nontraditional engineering environment, it really puts your skills to the test,” says Parks, who also graduated in December 2020. “This is going to help me in the real world—I won’t say more than any of my other experiences at UW, because they’ll all contribute—but this one’s going to be a key to me succeeding in private or public industry.”

Wermuth says the district is already implementing some of the students’ suggestions.

“The students went above and beyond in providing us information and just a really different way to look at the problem that’s occurring in our district and occurring in a lot of other rural districts across the state of Wisconsin,” says Wermuth. “We’re going to change some processes and practices that we have in the district to allow teachers more voice in the decision-making.”

Author: Tom Ziemer