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18 Jan

Faculty Spotlight: Online Engineering Master’s Experience

Umut Gurkan

Why does a committed researcher volunteer to teach courses online?

Umut Gurkan has been at Case Western Reserve University since 2013 and has been involved in the online engineering master’s programs at the university since their inception.

His involvement definitely wasn’t because he needed the extra work. In addition to being the Warren E. Rupp Associate Professor in the Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering Department, he holds a secondary appointment in the Department of Biomedical Engineering and leads the Biomanufacturing and Microfabrication Laboratory at CWRU. His research has taken him around the globe and earned him recognition as both a researcher and an inventor.

In the online master’s in biomedical engineering and mechanical engineering programs, Gurkan teaches the course Micro Electro Mechanical Systems and Biomanufacturing, which focuses on applying micro technologies to biology and medicine.

In this interview, Gurkan discusses the online experience at CWRU and why he and his colleagues volunteered to be a part of its online master’s in engineering degrees.

How do you bring your research experience to an online classroom?

There are lots of things that I do to bring more real-world experience to the course. It starts with the preparation of the slides and how I describe the concepts in the slides. I always try to give examples. If you look at the course content, you will see that maybe we have one or two complex equations, but it's mostly case studies, applications and problem-focused teaching. What type of disease are we talking about? What is the problem? How does engineering on a micro scale help address the problem?

There are also discussion boards. We always try to focus on the most up-to-date, real-world problems that are published in peer-reviewed journals. I come up with a discussion topic every week: typically based on watching a video about a new micro scale concept or reading a paper, and asking students to comment about how they would solve that problem. Sometimes they are philosophical, sometimes ethical, sometimes really technical discussions that these students engage in.

How do you write the entire Encyclopedia Britannica at the head of a needle? This is a discussion board question in this course. They need to go watch a video. They need to do research and come up with ideas on how they can write that into such a small space. People write entries, and then they have to read at least five other students' responses and comment on them. These discussion boards, the students' participation and the interactions between the students is part of the grade in this course.

The way I designed this course allows students to interact with each other because I want them to hear what other people think about their ideas. I want them to understand that they can learn a lot from this experience. They should be comfortable with putting an idea out there and letting other people comment on it, sometimes critically, sometimes positively, sometimes negatively. They should be used to hearing other opinions, and they should be used to getting feedback on their ideas and adjust their thinking and approach accordingly.

This is what I am trying to encourage in this course. You need to talk to as many people as you can and you need to engage with as many people as you can, before you design a solution to a problem.

What about this online program stands out to you?

First of all, when the school asked me to develop an online course, it was all voluntary. The instructors in the online programs are the people who really believed in this and who wanted to make this. I know the many people who developed courses for the online program, and they were all passionately working on these courses, maintaining these courses and trying to make them a success.

Almost all of these instructors are active researchers, just like me. They bring their experience from research programs to the online courses, and they're all passionate about these courses.

The courses are really developed with care and love. I think that's key. We wanted to reach a larger audience from across the nation, in addition to the local students who live here. Some students actually learn more comfortably in this fashion. Some people like to watch the lectures multiple times, some people are more comfortable interacting or expressing their opinions in these online forums, rather than speaking up in the classroom.

I think if online courses are properly done, as we are doing here at Case Western Reserve, they can be very useful. They can really engage more students from different backgrounds: professionals working at companies who take those courses after hours, people who may not otherwise be able to come to Cleveland. It gives them the opportunity to engage with the experience of the faculty here, which is quite applied, translational and real-world. Case Western Reserve University is one of the top universities, I think it's in the top 20 in the nation in terms of utility patents issued.1 We are an inventive university, and by the way, I'm a member of the National Academy of Inventors. We are recognized as inventors and innovators, and us teaching these online courses, I think is quite exceptional to be honest.

Why did you want to volunteer to teach an online course?

I was teaching this course in person before I switched to the online format. The class size was smaller and it was appealing to a smaller number of students who can come to the class in-person.

After I switched to the online program, it increased the diversity of the students in the class, first of all. Now students are actually interacting with a more diverse set of students. In the discussion boards, you should see the difference between a graduate student's perspective that is highly technical and someone who is working at a company, who is much more real-world oriented. This is a unique opportunity for everyone.

I didn't anticipate everything that I'm talking about before I developed this online course, but every semester I teach, I'm realizing that this was the right decision. The number of students is much bigger, it is creating a much more interesting discussion environment. For example, this semester I had 22 students, which is a very good size for this course. Previously, at most, I had about 10 students in this course. It was less than 10 in many cases. Now, I get 20 to 25 students in this course each semester and from different backgrounds, different disciplines. I have all engineering disciplines represented in the class and all levels, undergraduate, master’s, PhD, post master’s, post bachelor, taking this course. So, I think that’s the answer.

An Online Engineering Master’s With More to Offer

Choosing where to earn your graduate degree is about finding a program that fits into your work/life balance. At Case Western Reserve University, online students can choose the convenience of an online degree, without sacrificing the quality of their education. With committed faculty like Gurkan, our online coursework takes advantage of the many opportunities an online degree can offer.

Learn more about Gurkan’s course and others in our Master of Engineering, Master of Science in Biomedical Engineering, Master of Science in Mechanical Engineering and Master of Science in Systems and Control Engineering programs.


1. Retrieved on December 15, 2020 from academyofinventors.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/06/Top-100-2018.pdf