Thinking Outside the Box

The careers of the Illinois faculty have always included both teaching and research, and we’ve long found that our students undergo a dramatic transition in ability between their undergraduate years and the end of their first year of graduate school. As undergraduates, students attend lecture-based classes and master course content by listening to their professors and slogging through weekly problem sets. By the end of the semester, most of the class would understand most of the material but would find it difficult to integrate it into a coherent picture of classical electrodynamics, for example. And a semester after a course had ended, most students would not have retained their mastery of the topic.

But after a year of graduate school—during which students would work on difficult material without the distracting effects of 50-minute class periods—their competence at navigating confusing subjects and difficult problems would increase enormously.

We believe teaching in a manner that more closely resembles graduate education is more beneficial to our professional students. This is why we offer a project-based program.  Our students will learn by mastering what they need to know to complete tasks that are more like research projects.

In the M. Eng. in Instrumentation and Applied Physics program, you will be performing the two-semester analog of a PhD research thesis: defining a measurement to be performed, designing and building an instrument capable of recording data necessary for the measurement, testing your device, doing the field work to record valid data, then analyzing the data to form supportable, reproducible conclusions. Throughout the course of the program, you will report on your progress; both through informal presentations to the class and in a concise, more formal paper intended for an external audience at the end of the program.

This strong engagement with a project that drives the transition from an undergraduate level of skill to the expert mastery will be typical of graduates from our program.

The project work will resemble what your instructors do in their own laboratories: they tackle technical challenges that may be initially baffling, but are nearly always resolved through insight, flashes of intuition, and web searches for the methods found by other scientists. Above all, success in the lab requires an open mind, an ability to innovate, participate in team leadership, and solve real-world problems.