A legacy of lessons learned

Posted on 09. Dec, 2011 by in Alumni, Chemical and Biological Engineering, Electrical and Computer Engineering, Features, Gift Report, People, Students

Professorship advances educational excellence

When Duane Bluemke completed his undergraduate degree in chemical engineering in 1955, he was grateful for the professors who had instructed him.

He particularly appreciates the lessons he learned from the late Olaf Hougen. “He was an especially good teacher,” Bluemke says. “He taught so that you would understand how to approach complex material in order to get satisfactory results.”

After he graduated, Bluemke took a job as a sales engineer with Fisher Governor, but later broke off to start his own successful consulting company. He attributes that success, again, to good teaching.
Wanting to create incentive for professors to be strong teachers, and to reward those already making waves in the classroom, he and his wife, Dorothy, funded the Duane H. and Dorothy M. Bluemke Professorship. Awarded every three years, the professorship allots funds to a faculty member for initiatives that improve the quality of education in the college.

For Industrial and Systems Engineering Professor Emeritus Michael J. Smith, the first to hold the professorship, the funding allowed him to fund student travel to scientific meetings, support student research, and to pay a student research assistant in his lab each year.

John Booske and students in WisCEL.

John Booske and students in WisCEL.

And for John Booske, an electrical and computer engineering professor and the current Bluemke professor, the money has been a boon to his undergraduates both in the classroom and in the lab. Additionally, it helped him develop the Wisconsin Collaboratory for Enhanced Learning (WisCEL) project, which has transformed spaces in Wendt Commons and College Library to allow students to learn using techniques and information technology in ways not possible in the traditional classroom.

With its airy, open layout, ready access to computers and other information technology, and spontaneous peer collaboration, the new WisCEL space in Wendt will allow professors to experiment with different class structures. For example, Booske prefers the inverted classroom method of instruction, in which students read course information on their own and use classroom time to do exercises. Having the professor present while students learn to apply the concepts is useful, he says, because it offers students immediate feedback. The professor also is able to deliver a more individualized learning experience, rather than the “one-content-and-pace-fits-all” style characteristic of traditional teaching methods.

Much of the work–professional development, workshops, and chances to experiment with different software tools and instructional models–that led Booske to develop WisCEL was funded by the Bluemke professorship. In fact, he says, WisCEL is one of the most important outcomes of that support.

In addition to mathematics courses, the Wendt site will host introductory engineering courses in electrical circuits and statics in spring 2012. “Engineering is one of the disciplines that could benefit from this kind of instructional modality, especially in lower-level courses, which are prime for this kind of learning,” Booske says. “WisCEL is a place that is especially well-suited for learning in which ‘practice makes perfect’ is a major part of mastery.”

Booske also has offered opportunities for undergraduates to help with his research, gain lab experience, run their own inquiries, and write and publish their own research. They investigate topics such as the effect of electrical fields on biological cell function. For these students, funding from the professorship pays for materials and supplies for their lab work, travel, and in some cases, hourly wages. “They’re not just helping the graduate students,” he says. “They are asking their own questions and pursuing the answers—designing and conducting experiments, and the complete process of scientific and engineering research.”

The experience, he says, helps the students focus their careers as students and later, as engineers. “Many, if not most of them, have started out not thinking about graduate school or additional studies,” Booske says. “And they end up saying ‘Oh, I like this and I’m good at it and I want to continue it.’”

While the two endeavors, WisCEL and undergraduate lab experiences, benefit different numbers of students at varying levels, Booske says each is critically important to creating students who are lifelong learners and contributing citizens.

The beauty of the professorship, Booske says, is that it’s difficult for professors to find funding from the general university budget to enhance their teaching. “That’s a shrinking pot, not a growing pot,” he says. “So to have that extra edge in doing new things, in getting 21st-century instruction, we are becoming more dependent on privately donated resources. I think private gifts like the Bluemkes’ are crucial to how UW-Madison maintains its excellence. Prioritizing the educational emphasis empowers me to invest it in that area.”

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