Virtual internship, real engineering

Posted on 02. May, 2013 by in Academic Departments, Beyond Boundaries, Biomedical Engineering, Industrial and Systems Engineering, Issues, Magazine, Mechanical Engineering, Research, Students

Brain graphicApplying the role-playing and problem-solving conventions often employed in video games, a computer simulation called Nephrotex enables engineering undergrads to assume the role of biomedical engineering interns working at a fictional company, giving them an early peek at what it’s like to apply math and science skills to a real-world problem. “It’s about learning to think like an engineer,” says David Williamson Shaffer, a professor of educational psychology in the UW-Madison School of Education.

Shaffer and Biomedical Engineering Associate Professor Naomi Chesler developed the simulation—a “virtual internship”—with funding from the National Science Foundation.

Focusing on problem-solving skills, the simulation is designed to engage, encourage and retain engineering students who are early in their undergraduate education. It allows students to tackle a design problem—in this case, designing a kidney dialysis membrane—without the technical background needed to take on the problem in the real world.

The virtual internship parallels the realities of working at an engineering firm. Students consult with supervisors and co-workers—some computer-controlled, some live mentors. They research potential materials for the dialysis machine and chat, via in-game messaging, with colleagues (other real-life classmates) about the problems they face.

Nephrotex exposes students to the problem-solving and collaborative skills they need to complement the technical engineering knowledge they’ll acquire. “It also exposes them to the different engineering disciplines, and how they can contribute differently to solving a problem,” says Chesler. “We incorporate that into the simulation because it’s so important for first-year students, who have yet to choose a major.”

A broader goal of the simulation is to offer an authentic experience of engineering as a profession; according to Shaffer and Chesler’s hypothesis, the confidence that comes from doing the real work of engineering could prepare students to weather that first hard year of math and science courses by giving them an idea of what they’re preparing for. For some students, previewing what they could be doing several years down the line as engineers could mean the difference between sticking with engineering and choosing another career path.

According to Shaffer, that boost is just what students need to get over the crucial hurdle in the first year. “Students get the equivalent of a full year of engineering education, in terms of what they get from being confident in their engineering skills,” says Shaffer.

With two new National Science Foundation grants, Shaffer and Chesler now are expanding their scope, with Mechanical Engineering Assistant Professor Mike Zinn and Industrial and Systems Engineering Professor Jeff Linderoth. On one grant, Zinn is contributing to the development of RescueShell, which will allow students to work as mechanical engineers to design a protective exoskeleton for rescue from burning buildings. In the future, internships for every engineering discipline will be created, using Nephrotex as the model.

For the other, Linderoth, Chesler and Shaffer are taking a look at the design space within each simulation, examining ways to refine and adjust it to different learning goals. For instance, Nephrotex could be scaled down in complexity to expose younger students to engineering, or scaled up for corporate training and assessment.

In a time when instruction is becoming increasingly data-driven, Chesler says that an online internship—which captures every exchange students have with mentors, classmates and computer-controlled characters —offers a wealth of data about how students perform over time. “The data we capture tells us a lot about how students learn in a virtual context,” says Chesler. “Those lessons will help inform us and others to assure the best student learning experience possible while embracing new technologies as part of the process.”

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