UW to offer new virtual internships to enhance women’s interest in engineering

April 26, 2013

Photo: male and female students in Engineering lab

Engineering students work on an assignment in Wendt Library, which houses the Wisconsin Collaboratory for Enhanced Learning. The College of Engineering this fall will offer a virtual internship class that is expected to increase women’s interest in engineering.

Photo: Bryce Richter

The College of Engineering will offer for the first time a course entirely based on digital learning simulations in the fall of 2013.

In Interdisciplinary Engineering 111, first-year students will participate in two virtual internships and propose solutions to realistic engineering design problems. New research suggests that participating in such simulations increases women's interest in engineering and desire to pursue an engineering degree.

The virtual internships were developed by the Epistemic Games Group in collaboration with faculty and students from the College of Engineering. The Epistemic Games Group, part of the Wisconsin Center for Education Research, develops computer simulations that help students learn to think like professional scientists and engineers.

"The engineers of the future need to be able to address complex problems in innovative and creative ways," says Professor David Shaffer, who directs the Epistemic Games Group. "Our research shows that virtual internships help students learn to deal with real issues that don't have standardized answers."

In these virtual internships, students conduct background research, develop and test prototypes, work with their peers and weigh the importance of both technical and nontechnical factors to propose a design solution. Unlike MOOCs and many other online-only courses, virtual internships do not use traditional teaching methods, such as lectures and problem sets. Instead, learning occurs in the context of doing. Collaborative activities, individualized mentorship, and guided reflection help students learn engineering design concepts and relevant technical knowledge.

“Increasing the number of women who earn engineering degrees would enhance both the size and the diversity of the engineering workforce, and virtual internships have a significant impact on women’s motivation to continue in engineering degree programs.”

Naomi Chesler

New research by the Epistemic Games Group has shown that after participating in a virtual internship, students — especially female students — were more interested in engineering and more motivated to pursue an engineering degree than students in a traditional first-year engineering course. Unlike many traditional courses, virtual internships cultivate a sense of belonging to a professional engineering community. They help students develop an engineering identity, to see themselves not as engineering students but as student engineers.

"The United States is facing a critical shortage of engineers, and women are underrepresented in the profession," says Naomi Chesler, a professor of biomedical engineering who collaborates with the Epistemic Games Group. "Increasing the number of women who earn engineering degrees would enhance both the size and the diversity of the engineering workforce, and virtual internships have a significant impact on women's motivation to continue in engineering degree programs."

Each of the two virtual internships in the new course introduces students to a wide range of engineering skills and topics. In Nephrotex, students are interns at a medical device company, where they are tasked with designing a nanotechnology-based filter for use in kidney dialysis equipment. In RescuShell, students work at RescuTek, a robotics company that has asked them to develop an assistive mechanical exoskeleton for use by rescue personnel.

Each simulation teaches engineering content and design skills not in the context of the classroom but in the context of the workplace. Thus, students learn more than just the technical skills associated with successful product development; they also learn important nontechnical skills, such as collaboration, professional communication and adaptability.

Because the internships are virtual, they can be offered to a large number of students simultaneously at one or several institutions. The fall course at UW-Madison will enroll 50 students.