March Prism - 2002
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Unequal Opportunity
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Engineering at the Forefront

The December 2001 ASEE Prism article, “Managing the Unmanageable” is correct that bioinformatics has “become the ultimate interdisciplinary study area...between engineering and biology,” but it is surprising that the premier magazine on engineering education refers to bioinformatics as “the new science,” and that “an army of scientists” is needed to understand genomic data. Yes, an army of scientists is needed, but also an army of engineers.

Bioinformatics requires scientific knowledge and mathematical and design skills. This is what engineers of any flavor do: combine science and technology to solve problems. Engineering expertise in designing methods and systems to coordinate, store, and analyze reams of data is the heart of the bioinformation revolution.

While graduate research programs are the current emphasis in bioinformatics education, several undergraduate programs, including ours at UCSC, have begun offering degrees. The ASEE and the engineering community should take notice of this area and work with both the International Society for Computational Biology and the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology to create an accreditation mechanism for these programs.

Richard Hughey
Associate Professor and Chair

Kevin Karplus
Professor and Chair, [Proposed] Program in Bioinformatics

Computer Engineering Department
University of California-Santa Cruz


The editor responds:

The whole point of our cover story on bioinformatics was that engineering is at its very backbone. As Damian Counsell, head of the bioinformatics department at the Institute for Cancer Research in London, says in the story, bioinformatics is “a special kind of engineering discipline.” Counsell attributes the burgeoning field's success to the fact that it is driven by the “characteristically practical and rigorous approach of engineering.”

Another Approach to E-learning

I just finished reading the article titled “A Bumpy Road” [December 2001] regarding the current status of graduate e-learning in engineering. I found the article to be an interesting update and discussion of the challenges faced by e-learning.

The article initiated some interesting dialogue with some of my colleagues at UW-Madison. I direct the university's first Web-based graduate degree program. Early in the design of the program we had rejected the electronic version of the “video-in-a-box” course as always suboptimal and typically inadequate to meet the needs of distant students, especially at graduate level. Giving students a “peek into the classroom” through recorded and streamed on-campus lectures is not an engaging learning experience for off-campus students, typically resulting in high dropout rates and more time for degree completion.

The Master of Engineering in Professional Practice has taken an approach of designing highly interactive, problem-based courses optimized for the distant learner. In addition, we use a cohort approach with proactive student support. This approach is demanding but delivers an incredibly rich learning experience for students. Our students have achieved a course completion rate of over 98 percent despite all holding down demanding professional positions.

Wayne Pferdehirt
Director, Master of Engineering in Professional Practice
University of Wisconsin-Madison

On Becoming an Engineering Professor

Ronald Barr, professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Texas at Austin, did an awesome job on the article “From Student Chapter to Faculty Member” [Prism, January 2002].

Susan Montgomery
Undergraduate Program Advisor, Chemical Engineering
University of Michigan