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Successful camp provides engineering experiences to students statewide

Camp Badger students participate in hands-on experiments at BTCI, the research arm of Promega.

Framed thank-you notes with photographs of smiling kids and service achievement awards crowd the walls of Philip O’Leary’s office. 

O’Leary, a professor in the Department of Engineering Professional Development, has been key to the success of Camp Badger Exploring Engineering, which has seen more than 3,000 students in the past 16 years—and continues to grow. 

Yet, O’Leary says none of that success could have happened without community support.   

In 1998, O’Leary founded Camp Badger on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus with the goal of introducing middle school students in Wisconsin to engineering and technology. He hoped to motivate students in the classroom by showing them how math and science could broadly be applied. 

To fulfill this vision, Camp Badger brings rising eighth-graders to University of Wisconsin campuses, where they stay for six nights in the residence halls. They listen to lectures, participate in discussions, go on field trips, visit job sites and take part in hands-on activities, like building rockets that use compressed air to fly. At camp, students have the opportunity to experience engineering in action.

In its first summer, the camp ran two sessions; in 2014, Camp Badger offered 10 sessions to accommodate the program's incredible growth. Some campers from the first sessions, who now are nearing 30 years old, are working professionally as engineers. 

“I had no idea it would turn out like this,” O’Leary says about Camp Badger.

Recently, the camp expanded to both the UW-River Falls and UW-Oshkosh campuses. 

“We made the choice to reach out to other campuses because some of the kids have very long travel distances. We have tried to make it more convenient for them,” O’Leary says. “We want the camp to provide kids all over the state with an opportunity to learn about technology.” 

The Camp Badger structure in River Falls and Oshkosh is similar to the one in Madison, but holding the camp in different locations allows campers to take advantage of resources unique to the area. 

In River Falls, for example, campers visited the Delta Airlines aircraft maintenance facility, while in Oshkosh, they toured Oshkosh Truck and Plexus.

The extension of the program also allows the camp to make connections with school districts and businesses all over Wisconsin. 

And the relationship the camp has with schools is very important. O’Leary says that teachers call him and recommend their students—especially those who are surpassing academic standards—for camp. Making school districts aware of Camp Badger helps draw a diverse applicant pool.

At the Madison camp, 10 teachers lead the day-to-day activities. They come from all over the Madison area and from as far as Janesville. “They are key to the success of camp,” O’Leary says.

The camp also has 25 counselors, many of whom are UW-Madison undergraduates studying engineering. The help Camp Badger receives from local Madison businesses also is vital to the program’s success. For example, Findorff Construction led more than eight hours of tours for campers in summer 2014, while campers also had the opportunity to talk with Placon founder and College of Engineering alumnus Thomas Mohs. 

Local companies’ willingness to help Camp Badger allows campers to see the kinds of careers they could grow up to have. 

Through such support and O’Leary’s dedication, Camp Badger has succeeded in creating motivated students who will lead the next generation in technology, math and science. “We get to see kids who are really talented from all over Wisconsin, and they get a chance to see other kids from around Wisconsin that share those talents,” O’Leary says. 

The camp receives funding from UW-Madison College of Engineering, Department of Engineering Professional Development; Office of Diversity Affairs; Plexus Corporation; John Deere Foundation; Michael Krupinski Memorial Education Fund; American Association of University Women; and National Center for Freight and Infrastructure Research and Education. 

Jasmine Sola
10/15/2014