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What a year we have had! Milwaukee School of Engineering (MSOE) is known for its practical approach in training engineers, which depends on doing project-based experiential learning (PBEL) — the backbone of our programs. In fact, the CREATE Institute (Community-focused Real-world Engagement in Academics Through Experiential-learning) is a dedicated group of individuals whose primary purpose is to infuse PBEL across campus.
Then, COVID-19 struck. How do you have experiential learning when meeting face-to-face is extremely limited? By assuring that all parties (faculty, staff and especially students) understand the goals of real-life projects and the interactions they entail. Having done a great job of transmitting that philosophy pre-COVID allowed things to keep rolling while we navigated the pandemic. Projects were different, but they had the same end goals in mind.
Anne-Marie Warren is a great example. She recognized that many families in Milwaukee would not have the resources to complete schoolwork online. So she attacked the problem, rather than lamenting it, and spearheaded MSOE’s first Desk Drive. Three months later, 100 homes received a desk requiring no hardware or tools for assembly, could be stored under a bed and came with a laptop to use for classes.
OK, it is not plumbing design. But imagine the coordination, the communication, the persuasion and the other skills needed to do such a project. Compare that to most projects in the construction industry — do you think she has a leg up on what will be required of her in the plumbing design/installation industry? I do.
To be honest, the key is not what is done in the classroom but what is done in concert with classroom work. Most importantly, it is not just a one-size-fits-all approach. Projects are just one approach. Some get heavily involved in competition teams, while others volunteer through programs such as Engineers Without Borders (EWB) or Habitat for Humanity.
Ultimately, it is through strong ties to industrial partners that our students become successful. Those partners have a say in what graduates should learn, sponsor internships and assist in teaching in the classroom. Most instructors have landed at the university after spending time working in the industry they are teaching.
It is not a dream that developed the core of the MSOE Mindset in Figure 1; it is our industry partners who indicate they want leaders of character, responsible professionals, passionate learners and value creators.
So, does it work? I can only share the stories about great students doing great things, like Christine. As she and I were bouncing along in the back of a pickup truck in the mountains of Guatemala discussing a variety of life’s questions, she turned to me after a pause and said, “Nelson, it is all your fault!”
Thinking that she was talking about being there with her, I started explaining that it is how I do my job. She stopped me in mid-sentence. She went on to describe a conversation that I had long forgotten. Reportedly, I (standing with three other faculty members) said, “Christine, if you will just believe in yourself half as much as we do, you will be exceptionally successful in life.”
That moment kept her in school and changed her life. She went on to lead competition teams to national placings, one of which put her back in Central America to implement the team’s plan. Today, she works for a very respected consulting firm and is pursuing her master’s degree.
Program: Civil engineering with a focus on environmental and water resources engineering
Year of graduation: Spring 2023 (for both bachelor’s and master’s degrees)
Most important project-based learning experience: My first project in school considered renovation solutions for the Riveredge Nature Center’s (RENC) constructed wetland. I went to school knowing I love nature and science, but this project helped me hone in on my foreseeable future. In the United States, it’s hard for us to realize the importance of something such as wastewater treatment that we take for granted. Once I sat down and tried to understand the science about it, I found myself unable to stop.
One thing about your college career you will always remember: As a freshman student, I had the opportunity to travel to Joyabaj, Guatemala, through Engineers Without Borders. We successfully aided the community in the construction of a school building.
One day on-site, we spent the afternoon mixing concrete, filling a 5-gallon bucket, then using a 15-person bucket line to transport the concrete over to the footing we were working on. I have never been as exhausted as I was on this trip in my entire life, yet the Guatemalan community members alongside me maintained a big smile on their faces. When the day ended, a few women came by the site to bring us homemade horchata. The love and kindness I experienced there will stay with me forever.
Future plans: Following university, I intend to become an environmental engineer, where I will design wastewater treatment facilities. I plan to stay involved with EWB and Central States Water Environment Association.
Instructor reflection: The RENC project was an interesting year-long effort. Alexis was in a class that found themselves at RENC at the end of their second week of classes. Their task was to look at one of two needs for RENC: either the wastewater needs after a planned expansion or a “classroom in the trees,” a dream for future development.
Teams collected data on the current situation, identified a variety of options and alternatives, analyzed the options and presented those options to the client. Did I mention these were first-year students? Talk about a lesson in learning by doing!
The wastewater project, led by Alexis’s group, was turned over to seniors for refinement and design. The primary plan and the expansion plans are currently shelved and awaiting final funding. Alexis maintains her relationship with RENC to this day!
Program: Architectural engineering
Year of graduation: 2022
Most important project-based learning experience: The water conditioner project that focuses on testing a hard-water removal device has been most important for me. It opened my eyes to the opportunities available in water resources, and it allowed me to begin my understanding of the intersectionality of water resources and environmental sciences.
One thing about your college career you will always remember: One thing about my college career that I will always remember is the supportiveness of the faculty and staff. Each time I approached a professor for a letter of recommendation or advice on next steps after undergrad, I was always met with positive responses. They helped me figure out what is best for me and what type of background I need in order to be successful in my future career.
Future plans: I plan to continue my education after graduation and pursue a doctorate in civil engineering with a focus on water resources.
Instructor reflection: As a great servant-leader, Annie-Marie has shed her success on others. The water treatment device project she mentions (and we need to maintain a level of confidentiality) exists today because, upon my return from an American Society of Plumbing Engineers meeting, she “jumped” out of her seat and said yes to the opportunity. It has taken most of the time of the pandemic for her to collect data (daily). It is this initiative followed by hard work that we strive to develop in students.
Program: Architectural engineering
Year of graduation: 2022
Most important project-based learning experience: My experience working with International Water Safety and Health (IWSH) was an outstanding lesson in patience, understanding and passion. I got to work with people who were so passionate about what they were doing that it made me become passionate about it as well. I worked long hours with students and community members to get to a goal and realized that projects are always going to have ups and downs.
So, while things can be frustrating, you have to realize that only you can change what you do and your reactions to others.
One thing about your college career you will always remember: The one experience I will always remember is the people I have met. I have met some amazing people who genuinely care about other people while also being passionate about what they do.
That is a testament to MSOE and the department and has kept students, staff and faculty here. Not only the friends I have made, but also the mentors and mentees who have found me — they are amazing and propelled my passions and creatively beyond what I thought was possible.
Future plans: Upon graduation, I hope to either work for an engineering consulting firm with an emphasis on green energy or for a nonprofit organization such as the IWSH foundation.
Instructor reflection: It is the spark that we look for. Katie’s (and Sarah’s) spark was doing great things for those in need. When the International Association of Plumbing and Mechanical Officials/IWSH contacted the university to help improve the handwash stations for the Navajo Nation, the partnership was formed. Katie and Sarah ran this project for the whole academic year, not just during our plumbing class.
That is dedication, and it came from their focus, not ours; and learning happened. The redesigned handwash stations have now been put in place at strategic locations on the nation’s land.
Program: Bachelor’s and master’s degrees in architectural engineering with a building mechanical systems specialty
Year of graduation: 2021
Most important project-based learning experience: The most important project-based learning experience I have been a part of was my senior design project. As a team, we were tasked with designing a 10-story eye institute — including all architectural, mechanical, plumbing and electrical components. While the content of the project was important, it was the collaborative team atmosphere that was most beneficial and memorable.
One thing about your college career you will always remember: I will never forget writing my 80-plus page capstone project report on Legionella mitigation tactics. It was awesome to be able to perform applicable and important research in the field I am passionate about.
Future plans: I have begun working as a plumbing designer at HGA Architects and Engineers. As I continue gaining experience in the plumbing realm, I want to earn my professional engineer license and begin focusing on making designs safer and more sustainable.
Instructor reflection: Logan’s senior project at the Eye Institute of Wisconsin was done at the request of Froedtert Hospital to assist them in planning for the future. Three groups of students “attacked” the complete revamp of the existing facility from three different angles.
Logan’s group did the most radical renovation, suggesting that the building be demolished and replaced by two separate buildings: one for office space and the other for surgery and treatment. Froedtert received three very comprehensive sets of plans for consideration and three detailed budgets for decision-making. This project was completed by our students just as COVID-19 hit, so the hospital is still considering a path forward. l
Douglas Nelson, P.E., GPD, is dedicated to enabling students and others from where they are to reach their goals. He does this as an associate professor and endowed Chair of Servant Leadership at the Milwaukee School of Engineering. His background includes teaching high school, technical college teaching, vice president of an onsite wastewater treatment vendor, and serving as a consultant in a municipal engineering firm. You may reach him at email@example.com.