Plexus Collaboratory: The next step in UW-Madison engineering educational innovation

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When UW-Madison pursues big changes in teaching methods, students have a better chance at succeeding in the real world. Where professors see flipped course models and flexible classroom spaces, employers see more undergraduates picking up communication and collaboration skills that often prove just as important as the technical foundations of engineering.

That’s why Plexus, a Neenah-based company that provides a wide range of electronics design and manufacturing services, contributed $200,000 to support a new learning space in Engineering Hall. The Plexus Collaboratory will give students an open, collaborative environment that breaks down the barriers between classroom and lab. While the lab’s workstations will provide an array of advanced technical capacities for instruction and design projects, its layout will serve the innovative course structures in which the UW-Madison Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering is a national leader. “Flipped” or “blended” courses shift class time away from lectures and into hands-on projects where students benefit from increased interactions with their instructors, and reinforce what they learn by helping to teach each other.

“The way they’re setting up the curriculum is enforcing a bit more mastery, and it’s more real-world,” says Mike Running, an ECE alum who now serves as Plexus’  vice president of global engineering operations. “It’s less textbook and more hands-on. I think it’s focused on the right overall skills.”

Running says it’s important for students to emerge from school with what he calls “soft skills” like teamwork and mentoring to back up their understanding of engineering concepts. The flexibility of the new space, he says, creates more opportunities for students to develop those skills as an integral part of their education.

“Plexus has seven design centers globally. On almost all of our projects, engineers are not just doing work with the person in the cube next to them, they’re working with people around the world,” Running says. “Being able to coach other people, that mentoring aspect, is one of the most critical things that we’re looking for in upper-level engineers.”

Duane H. and Dorothy M. Bluemke Professor and Chair of Electrical and Computer Engineering John Booske says the gift from Plexus will power a big step forward in the department’s long-running pursuit of better educational models.

“The innovative Plexus Collaboratory builds on active and blended learning space concepts pioneered on this campus, but now extends them to hands-on instructional laboratories, not just conventional concept and theory courses,” Booske says. “Its 92-seat capacity—unprecedented for an instructional laboratory classroom—enables every student to simultaneously learn from an experienced faculty member, expert teaching assistants and their peers, while having access to a full complement of individual and collaborative instructional and laboratory technology resources.”

The larger vision Booske articulates when it comes to pushing education forward is a big part of why Plexus decided to support the new space.

“From my standpoint, there’s thought leadership that’s going on at UW-Madison,” Running says. “They’ve been very forward-thinking in terms of getting it implemented. You hear about good ideas, but the team here is really making it happen.”

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Active, engaging education. Anywhere. And right here.

Scott Gordon