Prism Magazine September 2001



Teaching Toolbox
Online Alternative to an MBA

- By Courtney Porter Martin

Two years ago, John Tackes, 41, was an engineering manager in Carol Stream, Illinois. He enjoyed his job but wanted to learn how to do it better. He looked around at master's degree programs, but he knew that with a full-time job and three kids, ages 8, 6, and 2, it would be difficult. But then Tackes lucked out. He found a program with the classes he wanted to take, designed for the Internet, so he could get a master's degree from home. Tackes graduated from the two-year Web-based Master of Engineering in Professional Practice program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in May. He is currently director of engineering at Delta-Power Company in Rockford, Illinois.

“The Internet has been a huge advantage in terms of scheduling,” Tackes says. “But it really was that the course curriculum tied in to my aspirations and what I was doing at work.”

Another recent graduate, Gary Michalek, 38, instructor of quality control at GE Medical Systems in Waukesha, Wisconsin, also chose the program for its course content. But with a wife who worked full time and an infant, the scheduling flexibility was a big advantage. “I was always home at 5 pm,” Michalek says.

“The curriculum gives you tools that really prepare you to move up in management,” Tim Webster, 29, manager of new technology at John Zink in Shelton, Connecticut, says. “A lot of engineers I work with are considering MBAs. I recommend the MEPP program as a much better alternative to an MBA.”

The MEPP degree is the only UW-Madison graduate degree delivered completely over the Internet. The first class of 22 students graduated in May. In order to get accepted to the program, candidates must have at least four years of engineering work experience and a bachelor's degree in engineering, although exceptions have been made. All the students work full-time as engineers, which is fortunate because about 90 percent get part or all of their tuition paid by their employers. That isn't a small thing, considering that the program costs $31,400 not including travel to the week-long summer residency, software, or textbooks.

Before classes begin, students receive a study guide that includes a syllabus, a list of textbooks, readings, software, and lesson notes for each week. In addition to weekly assignments, students participate in discussions online on topics that change weekly. Every week or two, students participate in a conference call with their teacher and fellow students and log onto the Internet at the same time, so presentations can be made with the audio component. There are two opportunities for the conference call in the course of the week, so students can pick the time that best suits their schedules that particular week. Students also work together on long-term group projects.

Because each class goes through a fixed curriculum together, students develop close personal bonds. “You've been together for two years, almost like a family, depending on each other,” Oscar Lewis, 50, senior technical consultant at Agilent Technologies in Schaumberg, Illinois, says. “Graduation was kind of hard. You get to the end of something like that and it's really difficult to break away.”

“Working and living with the other students for two years in an electronic environment was special,” Michalek says. “There were tears shed at graduation because we knew we wouldn't see each other again.”

One particularly interesting aspect of the program is that the first class of students got to know each other over the Internet before they met in person, and that made for some funny surprises. Tackes had talked to fellow student Paul McDonald, who works at a military base and answered questions with “Yes sir” and “No sir.” Although McDonald was very approachable over the Internet, his height lends him a commanding presence and makes him appear intimidating. “Your perceptions of people are very different when you meet them in person,” Tackes says. After a while, though, Tackes and the other students realized that McDonald was the same person they'd been communicating with all along, and they warmed up to him.

Although many students admit having reservations at first about the respectability of a Web-based master's degree, none of them do anymore. “Asking if online education is quality education is like asking if campus education is quality education. You have to look at the university, program, and faculty, and talk to the students,” Wayne Pferdehirt, director of the MEPP program, says. Several students feel confident that the University of Wisconsin's reputation will lend credibility to their degrees. And many of them couldn't have completed the degree if it weren't a Web-based program that allowed for a flexible study schedule. Some students, such as Tackes, weren't confident in their Internet abilities before they started the program, and saw that aspect as a separate learning opportunity. “I think people have perceptions that students who take Internet classes are Internet whizzes, and I think it was just the opposite,” Tackes says. “I had never really owned a personal computer until six months before the program began. I think this program gave me a lot of confidence in using the Internet as a learning tool.”

The hardest part of the program is the discipline and commitment needed to study for 20 hours a week in addition to a full-time job and family commitments. “You've got to turn the hobbies off for two years,” Tackes says. “But the education becomes a new hobby.”

Courtney Porter Martin is an associate editor at Prism.

Repainting the Portrait of Engineering

- By Alice Daniel

Jennifer McDaniel grew up believing only men became engineers. But then her paradigm changed. At the urging of a high school teacher, she attended a national program called Expanding Your Horizons (EYH) that encourages young women to take courses--and to consider career options--in math and science.

"The program opened up opportunities I hadn't considered," says McDaniel, who now works for Agere Systems in Orlando and co-chairs an annual EYH conference at the University of Central Florida. "If it wasn't for EYH, I would not have been an engineer because the picture that's always been painted for me is that engineers are men. Seeing women who were successful in a traditionally male-dominated field changed my outlook. If they could do it, so could I."

McDaniel's "can do" response is what EYH hopes for from all its participants. Considering its roots, that's not surprising. EYH was one of four intervention models created in the mid-1970s by the Math/Science Network, an Oakland, California-based organization that strives to increase the number of women in math and science-related professions. The network was founded by women in industry who had few, if any, female peers and by math educators who saw few females in classes that weren't required.

"We began to license EYH out nationally in the early 1980s with the idea that people everywhere could do this and that women in math and science would be happy to volunteer," says Betty Levitin, executive director of the Math/Science Network. Today, more than 100 conferences are held annually in 30 states, usually at universities or colleges. More than 525,000 students, mainly middle-schoolers, have participated. The conferences, which are funded and planned locally, generally include a keynote speaker as well as various hands-on and informational workshops led by women scientists, mathematicians, and engineers. Some conferences also offer workshops for parents that include discussions on financial aid and how to help a child study.

"The biggest supporters have been the women in the community who come and participate, the doctors, engineers and professors," says Lucy Morse, who started EYH at the University of Central Florida in 1984 after becoming the first woman there to get a Ph.D. in engineering. Major organizers of these conferences include the Society of Women Engineers, the American Association of University Women and the Association for Women in Science.

But even in 2001, some young women still lack the encouragement to go into math or science, says Morse. "I still think there are a lot of people who aren't convinced that women can go into those fields. We've got to get young women to take those courses so that if they decide to go into a math or science field at some point, they're not left behind."

With that goal in mind, EYH is not only designed for students who are college-bound but also for students who may choose to practice a skilled trade or get a technical degree. "I would hope that all of these young women would get at least a B.A. but I also know the reality of America in the 21st century," says Levitin. "The more math they take, the better off they'll be and the better the opportunity to advance in a job of any kind even if it's the difference between a sales clerk and a manager. But I mostly want to hear about young people who become engineers."

Elizabeth Wheeler is one such participant who became an engineer. She enthusiastically remembers her first encounter with EYH. After all, the keynote speaker was Sally Ride. "My impression of the program was that you could be a woman in science and not be a stereotypical geek," says Wheeler, who received her Ph.D. in chemical engineering at Stanford and works at the Lawrence-Livermore National Lab in California. "I was bowled over by Sally Ride, that she would take time out of her busy schedule. She told us if we sent her a stamped envelope, she would send back an autographed picture. I still, to this day, have the picture."

Wheeler, like other former participants, is giving back to the program by volunteering. She co-chairs an EYH program in San Ramon, California. "I get so much enjoyment out of the hands-on workshops," she says. "It reminds me why science is fun."

Alice Daniel is a freelance writer based in Fresno, California.