Iron Range Engineering’s (IRE) Bell Program is a unique transfer program in the Department of Integrated Engineering at Minnesota State University, Mankato. Designed for community college graduates, it successfully blends education with engineering co-op experiences. In a recent Massachusetts Institute of Technology study on the global state of the art in engineering education, IRE was named one of the world’s top five emerging leaders.
The Bell Academy is a semester-long program that transitions graduates from community colleges nationwide into the Bell Program. During a time of intensive growth, students learn to work together by completing real-world design projects, taking technical courses and developing professional skills. The Bell Academy uses an innovative project-based approach, incorporating the latest research about how people learn, and strives to incorporate innovative teaching and communications tools as well. The academy’s goal is not just that the students develop a wide range of technical, professional and design knowledge, but also that they become “inclusive, reflective, polished communicators,” with the collaborative skills needed to succeed in real-world engineering team environments. Students complete the Bell Academy by defending their learning in a variety of ways, including an IRE Talk, which is modeled on the familiar TED Talks.
Students’ subsequent two years in the Bell Program allow them to work full time as engineers anywhere in the country, while taking technical courses from Bell remotely in the evenings. By the end of the program, students will possess a Bachelor of Science in Engineering degree with a focus in mechanical, electrical, chemical or other areas of engineering, along with more than two years of real industry experience plus earnings to help pay for their education.
“The Bell Academy is project based, and very much all about hands-on learning,” said Assistant Professor Dennis Rogalsky, a member of the Bell faculty. “Classes are typically about 20 minutes of lecture or discussion, and then students break out to whiteboards in small groups to work on problems or to brainstorm. The classrooms were originally set up with just physical whiteboards for all in-person courses. But last year, because of the pandemic, we had to transition into remote learning. And this year, we’re in a hybrid model where we have some people in-person and some that are remote, which is even more challenging. We realized that the whiteboards we were using just weren’t up to the task.”
Rogalsky was part of a team that conducted a broad search for a technology-based solution, and BenQ quickly rose to the top of the list, in both overall performance and cost effectiveness. They reached out directly to BenQ Sr. Field Applications Engineer Felix Pimentel, who did a remote demonstration of the RP Series boards. Then the local BenQ integrator, Chris Butler, from Duluth’s BG Innovations, Inc., performed an on-site demo and left the equipment so the team could experience the boards for themselves. The boards’ interactive productivity tools, perfect for helping the students develop a real-world professional skill set, thoroughly convinced the Bell Academy faculty. They decided to purchase BenQ interactive displays for both a classroom and a larger tiered learning space created from an old theater.
They kicked off the 2021 fall semester with two new BenQ 86-inch RP8602 panels for the instructor’s displays, and ten 65-inch RP6502 displays for huddle spaces. Dennis commented on the larger classroom, “We’ve got the big BenQ board up front that’s the presenter panel, and then we've got four smaller boards on the side walls for breakout sessions. We assign both the remote students and the students in the room to one of those side boards. You’ve got a small group that can be both remote and in-person interacting on the same task. That might be to identify the lesson’s key takeaways. Or there will be a defined problem that they work on at the board as a small team. And often the board functions as a space for a small group to gather and reflect on an experience, an idea or a problem. Reflection is a very strong part of the learning model within the Bell program.”
Both the remote and in-person students can run the problem together on the same interactive display. Those at the board use touch or the pen tool, while the remote learners can use their mouse or their stylus to interact with the board. In the future, Dennis anticipates many opportunities to leverage the EZWrite’s annotation features to further the collaborative process. In addition, Dennis mounted webcams on the side boards so remote students can see their team members and have a more natural sense of interaction and collaboration. The presenter boards were also enhanced with pan-tilt-zoom cameras that take in the instructor and the BenQ board in one camera angle, delivering a more immersive experience for remote learners.
Dennis said that the BenQ interactive boards with their InstaShare presentation software are also extremely useful as a remote presentation tool. “When students are working with their company, they’re given a specific project. Throughout the semester, those students will have design reviews where they report with a live presentation, detailing the work that they've achieved up to date and their plans going forward. They are using the BenQ boards as part of their client meetings for presenting their results, and both the clients and our faculty can evaluate their progress and their communications skills at the same time.”
The Bell Academy has found the students to be enthusiastic users of the BenQ board as a space to work together in small teams as well as individually. Rogalsky noted that the Bell Academy has become so engaged with the interactive whiteboards that they’ve started rolling them out in spaces where they’ve been noticed by others in their academic community. “Community colleges in our area have gotten excited about it and have been purchasing boards for their programs. Bell’s parent program, Iron Range Engineering, is looking to order a couple for themselves as well.”
The Bell Academy’s original interest in BenQ’s interactive displays was to solve the challenges of a hybrid learning environment, providing an equivalent experience for both in-class and remote students. They’ve found that the BenQ boards, with their collaboration and presentation tools, are also a perfect fit with Bell’s overall philosophy of learning. The boards use innovative technology to revolutionize how Bell students absorb their technical content, but also how they learn to communicate, collaborate and present to their colleagues. In transforming how they educate the next generation of engineers; IRE’s Bell Academy is succeeding in its goal of creating systematic and widespread change in engineering education.