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The Development of a Local and Distance Delivered Reliability and Maintainability Engineering Master

1. Background:

In 1996 The College of Engineering at the University of Tennessee (UT) formed the Maintenance and Reliability Center (MRC) which is an industry-supported center drawing support from a diverse range of companies and industries. The member company list continues to grow from an original 12 to over 30. The MRC bridges between industry and academia to provide education, research & development, and information exchange in the application of maintenance and reliability engineering tools and concepts. Selected publications related to the Reliability and Maintainability Program development are included in the references section.

1.1 Initial Maintenance Course Development

Shortly after forming the center, it became apparent that there was a need for formal University level maintenance and reliability education. The University of Maryland has a very successful program in Reliability Engineering that could be characterized as product focused rather than process focused. Their program does an excellent job of preparing students for designing products and has special expertise in electronics. The MRC focus is on the processes such as manufacturing, petro-chemical, power production, and equipment. To meet the identified need, a proposal was written to the National Science Foundation resulting in a Combined Research and Curriculum Development (CRCD) grant to develop and offer five courses:

1. Introduction to Maintenance Engineering

2. Introduction to Reliability Engineering

3. Maintenance/Reliability Management Planning

4. Advanced Condition Monitoring and Diagnosis

5. Reliability and Life Prediction Technology,

along with a teaching laboratory organized with modules in vibration analysis, laser alignment capabilities, lube oil analysis, balancing, ultrasonics, eddy current analysis, electrical current analysis, along with other technologies. The first four courses were developed by UT and the fifth by the University of Alabama who partnered in the grant. Each of the courses was first developed through traditional classroom methods and then offered to distance students.

The Advanced Condition Monitoring and Diagnosis course was the first to be presented on-line and was offered in the summer of 2000 with attendees from throughout the U.S. and several other countries. Courses were, and still are, delivered synchronously through the use of the Centra Symposium Internet delivery system which will be discussed in more detail in Section 3.

1.2 Undergraduate and Graduate Certificate Programs Development

The MRC's advisory board and industrial members had been requesting a degree program in Reliability and Maintainability Engineering (RME) for years. We originally tried to fulfill this need with an undergraduate certificate program and a graduate certificate program.

The Undergraduate Certificate in RME requires two core classes, one in reliability and one in maintenance, and two summer internships with MRC member companies (about 30 interns are placed with MRC member companies each summer). In addition, the interns were required to complete a one week course in RME before reporting to the internship. This course, affectionately called "boot camp", consisted of 40 hours of instruction and laboratories from industrial experts. Boot camp graduates showed up on their host company doorstep with knowledge of state-of-the-art reliability principles and technologies. The internship program is one of the major draws for membership to the MRC.

Due to university policies and to ensure the education would appear on the student's transcripts, we recently replaced the undergraduate certificate program with a minor in RME. The minor in Reliability and Maintainability Engineering can be earned along with a degree in any engineering discipline through the completion of fifteen hours of coursework as listed below.

Core courses:                                                                          Hours
Introduction to Reliability Engineering (IE/ME/NE 483)                   6
Introduction to Maintenance Engineering (IE/ME/NE 484)
Statistics or Math Requirement (chosen from approved list)            3
RME Related Electives (two chosen from approved list)                   6

Total: 15

The Graduate Certificate in RME is a college-wide program that includes courses in industrial engineering, mechanical engineering, and nuclear engineering. Students earn the graduate certificate by completing four graduate engineering courses (3 credits each). The four courses consist of two core courses:

  • Introduction to Reliability Engineering
  • Introduction to Maintenance Engineering

and two elective courses selected from the following list:

  • Statistical Methods in Industrial Engineering
  • Managing Maintenance and Reliability
  • Mechanical Vibration
  • Reliability Centered Maintenance
  • Advanced Monitoring and Diagnostic Techniques
  • Process System Reliability and Safety

The graduate certificate program is intended to provide a high-quality theoretical and analytical foundation in RME for practitioners. The certificate program requires about half of the coursework needed to obtain an MS degree through one of the four participating COE departments and all courses are applicable toward satisfying the MS degree requirements.

The MRC members have desired an MS program for some time, and several years ago we partnered with Monash University (Australia) to market their distance delivered MS degree. That program currently has over 30 U.S. MS students. Although we originally planned that the program would be passed to UT, all the classes are currently still only offered by Monash.

Currently the most well know U.S. based program in Reliability Engineering is offered at the University of Maryland. They graduate about 15 M.S. and 3 Ph.D. students per year. The MS degree is offered through distance asynchronously with mailed out CD's and 90% of the MS students select a non-thesis option. The program focus is product reliability (e.g. electronic component reliability) while our program focus is in process reliability: the reliability of equipment in a manufacturing environment as related to availability and uptime.

2. MS Curriculum Development:

In order to determine the industrial needs, the MRC companies were surveyed and an external advisory committee was formed to assist with curriculum development. The initial survey was given to MRC members to determine if needs could be met with specific undergraduate and graduate programs; and whether distance or on campus delivery was preferred. The results showed the greatest desire for an undergraduate minor and a graduate MS program in RME; both offered on campus and through distance education. The survey results are included in the appendix. A second survey was used to determine which topics should be offered in undergraduate courses, graduate courses, or left for on-the-job training. Both surveys were used as evidence for the need for university level programs in a proposal to the Tennessee Higher Education Commission for a new MS program.

Approval of a new degree program at a State University is lengthy and involved. The time line stretches over two years for approval at the departmental, college, university, trustee and state levels. Additionally, new programs can only be added in August after undergraduate and graduate catalogs are approved and published. Administrative and procedural guidelines that must be established include admission and advisory responsibilities along with continuous curricular improvement processes.

The recently approved MS curriculum can be completed either with or without a thesis. Specific requirements consist of a minimum of 30 semester hours including:

  • Twelve semester hours of RME Core Courses as listed below.
  • Six semester hours of RME Elective Courses chosen from the list below.
  • Six semester hours of graduate courses in statistics chosen from the list below.
  • Three semester hours in engineering, statistics, business management, or a related field.
  • Master's thesis: 6 semester hours through the department of the major professor or a Project in lieu of thesis (3 semester hours) and an additional 3 hour RME elective.
  • A final oral examination covering the thesis and related coursework.

RME Core Courses:

  • Introduction to Mathematical Statistics (Stat 560)*
  • Introduction to Reliability Engineering (IE/ME/NE 483)*
  • Introduction to Maintainability Engineering (IE/ME/MSE/NE 484)*
  • Process System Reliability and Safety (ChE/NE 585)*

RME Electives:

  • Applications of Linear Algebra in Engineering Systems (ChE/BME/ECE/MSE/ME 507)
  • Applications of Multivariate Statistics and Process Modeling and Data Analysis (ChE/IE 561)
  • Modern Transform Methods (ECE 503)
  • Random Process Theory for Engineers (ECE 504)
  • Statistical Methods in Industrial Engineering (IE 516)
  • Reliability Engineering (IE 517)
  • Mechanical Vibrations (ME/BME/ES 534)*
  • Advanced Monitoring and Diagnostic Techniques (NE 579)*

Statistics Electives:

  • Statistical Techniques in Indestrial Processes (Stat 566)
  • Analysis of Lifetime Data (stat 567)
  • Statistical Methods (Stat 571)*
  • Applied Linear Models (Stat 572)*
  • Design of experiments (Stat 573)*
  • Data Mining (Stat 574)*
  • Appliead Time Series (Stat 575)*
  • Categorical Data Analysis (Stat 578)
  • Applied Multicariate Methods(Stat 579)

*Currently offered through distance.

The Vision of the Reliability and Maintainability Program is to:

"Be the USA Leader in Equipment/Process Related Reliability Engineering Graduate Education"

Specific goals of the MS program in Reliability and Maintainability Engineering are:

  • To educate and produce MS graduates with the ability to understand and apply the techniques, skills, and modern engineering tools necessary for professional practice in reliability and maintainability engineering.
  • To develop a strong resource in reliability and maintainability engineering research and development within the state of Tennessee in support of industry and government.
  • To contribute to the economic development of the state by training highly qualified graduates in the field of Reliability and Maintainability Engineering.

Applicants for admission to the MS program in Reliability and Maintainability Engineering are expected to have earned a bachelor's degree from an accredited undergraduate program in engineering or physics.  Students from other appropriate disciplines (e.g. chemistry, mathematics, etc.) can be admitted but additional engineering courses may be required. Entering students must have, as a minimum, competency in mathematics through ordinary differential equations.

More detailed information about the Reliability and Maintainability Engineering programs is available online at


The distance courses are delivered live and interactively (i.e., synchronous delivery) to the student's desktop computer via dial-up speeds to the Internet’s World Wide Web and are recorded and available asynchronously (i.e. saved on a server) to accommodate students who must occasionally miss class.  “Symposium” software, developed and licensed by Centra Inc., is part of a suite of faculty and student-centric services supplied by The University of Tennessee’s Distance Education and Independent Study (DEIS) unit and known at UT as “Cyberclass” (

CENTRA Delivery System

Cyberclass’ real-time Symposium software features multiway audio-over-the-internet for phone conference call-like interaction. While lecturing and interacting with students, many engineering professors use Symposium’s high-resolution, digital media window for teaching content, supporting: 

·         PowerPoint slide presentations for course content,

·         Whiteboard (electronic chalkboard) for annotating PowerPoint, working problems, and presenting visual examples,

·         Application-sharing of Microsoft Windows-based programs for complex simulations or visuals. 

Figure 1 is a screen shot of a Centra Symposium class showing the in-class use of a windows-based program.

Centra ScreenShot

Figure 1. Centra Symposium Screen Shot

Symposium's Internet-based interactive media features also include:

  • "Electronic Hand Raising" allowing students to be recognized by the instructor and ask questions by voice
  • Synchronized web browsers for interactive use of the World Wide Web
  • Online "breakout rooms", allowing small group discussion, collaboration, and brainstorming
  • Group text chat and student/instructor private text chat (in addition to voice chat) for out-of-band tech support or private student/teacher interaction.
  • Online surveys and quizzes created by faculty and administered to individual students either in real-time or asynchronously.
  • "Co-presenter mode", allowing distance guest speakers or students to be given control of the system's media and make their own presentations
  • VCR-like on-demand audio/video playback of previous CyberClasses over the Internet

Students are able to interact with the class by asking questions, providing feedback, and through the opportunity to make class presentation. This technology has been used at UT for at least 8 years and feedback from COE distance students has been very positive.

3.1 Optimized for use at Low Bandwidth

PowerPoint slide presentations, windows media files, and a number of other file types are uploaded to a server by the instructor and then downloaded to the student's computers when logging into the class. This initial transfer of lecture materials decreases the bandwidth requirements during class because only short control codes are transmitted to the students' computers as the instructor moves through lecture material. This frees up bandwidth for the real-time audio and other windows applications and allows UT's Cyberclasses to operate at dial-up modem speeds as low as 28.8 kbps over commodity internet connections. High speed Internet connections (cable modems, ISDN, DSL, etc.) are not required for Symposium operations. Working professionals can, therefore, attend class from remote locations by laptop computers, increasing the value and flexibility of this delivery method to highly mobile learners in business and industry.

3.2 Implementation

Prior to the MS program, typical RME class enrollments were six distance students coupled with six local students; however, this semester the Introduction to Maintenance class has over 30 local student and over 20 distance students. The classes are taught in a dual delivery mode that combines local and distance students. Each of the twenty-five College of Engineering classrooms has a SMART Board system. These SMART Board systems (see Figure 2) consist of an interactive, touch-sensitive rear projection screen (whiteboard) that acts as an input/output interface to an internet-connected PC computer. Tapping on the board is equivalent to a mouse click and writing to the whiteboard is accomplished with electronic pens. Additionally, class lectures are recorded for posting to a class website. More information on SMART Board technology can be found at

Figure 2 - SMART Board Read Projection Unit

Faculty members use the Centra Software to communicate with the distance students while the local students attend in the classroom. The instructor wears a wireless microphone and uses the SMART Board as the computer interface to the distance students. Figure 3 is an example of the dual delivery format. The local students in the classroom see and hear the same information simultaneously with the distance students. Both local and distance students verbally ask questions and receive answers in real-time. The distance students can participate in class discussion by "raising their virtual hand" and asking questions as easily as the local students. The distance students can also have access to the electronic whiteboard and other windows applications on the host computer. In short, the SMART BoardTM and Centra technology used together insure a quality, interactive learning experience for both local and distance students. In fact, it is common for local students to register as a distance student to take advantage of the flexibility of the distance delivery system.

Figure 3 - Typical hybrid class arrangement for both distance and local students

Figure 3. Typical hybrid class arrangement for both distance and local students

Local students take exams in class while distance students use proctors who may be company training personnel, library staff, or other mutually agreed upon individuals. UT provides technical support to the distance students to assure the proper software is downloaded, installed, and operating correctly prior to the first class meeting.

3.3 Blackboard Course Management System

The RME program's Cyberclass suite also uses an internet application called Blackboard to make static materials available to students. The materials include items such as the course syllabus, lecture notes, assignments, and supplemental reference material for both local and distance students. An on-line gradebook is used to provide students with current status of assessments.

3.4 Distance Delivery Results

Research conducted at the University of Tennessee indicates: (1) use of Centra has dramatically reduced time-to-market development times for fully online degree programs, (2) in spite of the availability of Centra's on-demand playbacks as substitutes for live class interaction, graduate students seem to prefer attending the on-line class real-time, and (3) use of Centra has dramatically reduced student dropout rates compared to either asynchronous-only forms or traditional videoconferencing.

Lastly, a study was performed at UT that supports the "No Significant Difference" theory. This theory states that there is no difference in learning between distance and local students and it has been supported by many research studies. The UT study [Gramoll 2005] focused on the delivery of a basic Statics course to Pellissippi State Technical Community College (PSTCC) students located in Knoxville, Tennessee. The course was delivered to two groups of students covering the same material but using different delivery methods. One class was taught using distance delivery techniques over the Internet and the second was taught using traditional on-campus lectures and office hours. For comparison purposes, the two classes were taught by the same instructors, covered the same material at the same rate, and used the same multiple choice tests and final exam. Both classes had access to identical course content on the Internet as well as a standard print textbook. A comparison of the test results shows that the online delivery of basic engineering content through the Internet provides as good, if not better, education than traditional delivery methods. In fact, the online class students performed better on the exams by over a half-grade level.


The University of Tennessee's College of Engineering has made a commitment to offer both undergraduate and graduate courses, programs, and degrees in Reliability and Maintainability Engineering. Additionally, the graduate courses will be offered using synchronous distance- technologies to make RME education more accessible to students throughout the U.S. and around the world. The use of information technology such as Centra's virtual classroom has made this endeavor practical without sacrificing the interactivity or quality of the learning experience.

The program was officially made available in August 2007 and currently has a dozen students. The current Introduction to Maintenance course was filled two months before its offering and additional seats were added. A current faculty search is underway with the hopes that additional expertise in Reliability Engineering can be added to the college.


1. Kerlin, T., and others, "A Program in Maintenance and Reliability Engineering Education", published in the Proceedings of the Maintenance and Reliability Conference, Knoxville, TN, May 1999, pp.52.01-52.07.

2. Hines, J.W., "The Future of Maintenance and Reliability Education", 13th International Congress and Exhibition on Condition Monitoring and Diagnostic Engineering Management, Houston, Texas, December 3-8, 2000.

3. Upadhyaya, B,.R., J.W. Hines, J.P. McClanahan, and N.A. Johansen, "Development of a Maintenance Engineering Laboratory", 2002 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Montréal, Quebec, Canada, June 16-19, 2002.

4. Hines J.W., and R.H. Jackson, "Web-Based Distance Learning Works", Maintenance Technology, September, 2002.

5. Hines, J.W., "The Future of Maintenance and Reliability Education", 11th Annual SMRP Conference, November 2-5, 2003, Indianapolis, Indiana.

6. Gramoll, K, M. Kocak, and W. Hines, "Delivery and Assessment of Teaching Statics Over the Internet to Community College Students", American Society of Engineering Education (ASEE) Annual Conference and Exposition, Portland Oregon, 2005.

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