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Celebrating 11 years of Camp Badger

Camp Badger participants tour the UW-Madison Union South construction site.
Camp Badger participants tour the UW-Madison Union South construction site. Photo by Andrea Parins Larger Image

On a sunny afternoon in July, a group in hard hats and safety glasses tours the UW-Madison Union South construction project—not in itself an unusual sight, except that under those hard hats are middle school students learning not only how to build a building, but how to build their futures as engineers.

The Union South tour was one of many activities offered to incoming eighth-graders as part of the 2010 UW-Madison Camp Badger Exploring Engineering program. For 11 years, the camp has been at the core of UW-Madison College of Engineering efforts to interest young students in science, technology, engineering and mathematics disciplines. From Sunday to Saturday, campers follow a busy schedule that incorporates more than 25 science projects, high-tech computer labs and field trips to local companies and engineering facilities.

Amit Nimunkar is a lecturer through the engineering Diversity Affairs Office and the Department of Engineering Professional Development, which coordinates Camp Badger. He says that one camp goal is to expose students to different areas of engineering and the many ways that they can help fix problems in society. “We also want to show them the world of opportunity available at UW-Madison by hosting the activities on campus and at local companies,” says Nimunkar, who joined the camp in 2010 as a facilitator.

The campers visit local companies such as the Dane County Landfill, Design Concepts, John Deere, Orbitec, Boulders Climbing Gym, Placon, Raven Software, Trek Bicycle, and Village Lanes Bowling. While on campus, students see the UW Polymer Engineering Center, Geology Museum, engineering student vehicle garage, and Space Science and Engineering Center. The activities and experiments, which incorporate a wide variety of engineering disciplines, range from extracting DNA in a UW BioTrek activity and designing wind turbines to testing nuclear radiation detectors and using computers to design bridges.

Nimunkar facilitates an engineering design activity in which teams of students build newspaper skyscrapers—without speaking. The goal of the activity is to teach students the design process, how to identify problems and solutions, and how to interact with other students on a team. “In this activity, we teach them that when designing a product, engineers do it multiple times and we emphasize how science and math is the basis for everything engineers do,” says Nimunkar, who sees students “graduate” from camp with a greater appreciation for studying these subjects in school.

Students work together in teams—without speaking—and learn engineering design concepts while building newspaper skyscrapers. Photo by Sandra Knisely
Students work together in teams—without speaking—and learn engineering design concepts while building newspaper skyscrapers. Photo by Sandra Knisely Larger Image

However, campers not only arrive ready to get their hands dirty in exciting science projects, they also come to get a glimpse of college life. Nimunkar says for most students, this is the first time they experience an extended stay away from their families. “This is an opportunity for them to be on campus and meet other students,” he says. “The camp makes them more responsible for themselves and you can see an increase in their level of maturity after the program.”

Camp Badger was first created in the summer of 1998 as a two-year pilot program to introduce underrepresented groups to engineering. Led by Engineering Professional Development Faculty Associates Steven Zwickel and Paul Ross and Professor Philip O'Leary, and Mechanical Engineering and Materials Science and Engineering Senior Lecturer Jay Samuel, in collaboration with School of Education faculty member Roger Maclean, the camp held two sessions for 13- to 15-year-olds the first summer and three the following year. After a hiatus in 2000, the camp earned several major corporate grants and began again in 2001 under the College of Engineering. Camp Badger has continued every year since, hosting five sessions each summer and six in 2010. In addition to UW-Madison staff, area teachers serve as camp leaders while UW-Madison students are camp counselors.

External funding continues to play a key role in Camp Badger’s success. Placon, founded by UW-Madison mechanical engineering alum Tom Mohs, not only supports the camp with monetary gifts, but company engineers volunteer time to teach campers the design, tool-making and production processes of plastic thermoforms.

Placon Community Relations Manager Barb Waters says that with school program budgets shrinking, businesses have a responsibility to help prepare the future workforce. “We know the importance of finding opportunities for students to interact with real-world careers, especially engineering, outside of the school year,” says Waters. “Camp Badger continues to be on the top of our corporate giving list because we want to be interactively involved in promoting careers in engineering.”

Other camp sponsors include the UW-Madison College of Engineering, Department of Engineering Professional Development, and Office of Diversity Affairs; the Michael Krupinski Memorial Foundation; the American Association of University Women; Cargill; and Kraft.

After more than a decade of successful sessions, Camp Badger has earned a high reputation in middle schools across the state. “I am happy to say that since we started Camp Badger, it has become institutionalized,” says Zwickel. “Science and math teachers and middle school counselors from all over Wisconsin refer their students to us and Camp Badger attendees are undoubtedly the cream of the crop.”

Andrea Parins
8/19/2010