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  5. Exploring engineering: Young Racine students connect with campus early and often

Exploring engineering: Young Racine students connect with campus early and often

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 In a college computer lab, Racine middle- and high- school students used a software program called West Point to design and test a virtual bridge. Photo: Renee Meiller

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Seven years ago, Racine Starbuck Middle School counselor Clarence Allen caught wind of Camp Badger, a weeklong summer engineering program at UW-Madison. For nearly a dozen years, this unique “week as an engineering student” has been integral to UW-Madison College of Engineering efforts to interest young students in science, technology, engineering and math.

Allen’s students were oblivious, and he wanted to change that. “I was doing career development, and the students asked me, ‘What’s the point of math?’” he says. “I began to search for ways to show students that math is important—and that you can apply it.”

So Allen, a UW-Madison alum, called Engineering Professional Development Professor Phil O’Leary, whose department administers the camp, to ask if he could bring some students to Madison to learn about Camp Badger. “Allen felt he needed to do something extra to encourage the students to be interested in coming to Madison,” says O’Leary. “He put together this program where they have to earn their way to coming on this trip by doing special homework. Their parents attend a meeting, and then after the trip here, the students do follow-up homework.”

That one-time introduction to the UW-Madison engineering campus has become an annual event now known as Exploring Engineering Day. From just 15 attendees in its first year, it has grown in 2010 to include 83 middle- and high-school students, 15 parents and six teachers. While on campus for the November 5, 2010, program, the students toured engineering facilities such as the Polymer Engineering Laboratory and student vehicle team garage, used design software that enables them to build and test a virtual bridge, learned about specific engineering disciplines, talked with current engineering students, and asked questions about the UW-Madison admissions process. 

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Nearly 100 students, teachers and parents traveled to UW-Madison from Racine for Exploring Engineering Day, an annual event that aims to help students become familiar with engineering and with the UW-Madison campus. Photo: Renee Meiller

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In Racine, Exploring Engineering Day has inspired additional extracurricular activities that enable students to apply math and science. Teams of students entered Destination ImagiNation, a construction challenge competition in which they placed second; and the National Fluid Power Challenge, which they won in 2008. Through Gateway Technical College, they formed a robotics team and placed second in competition in two divisions. “With these kids, the more you give them to do, the more they want to do,” says Allen.

Since Exploring Engineering Day began, Allen and other colleagues also have become certified through Project Lead the Way, a national organization that offers curriculum-based programs to prepare students to be innovative and productive leaders in science, technology, engineering and math.

For some of the Exploring Engineering attendees, it is their fifth or sixth trip to UW-Madison. Some have participated in Camp Badger or a similar program called the Engineering Career Academy, and one high-school student is enrolled in the UW-Madison PEOPLE program for high-school students. “It’s all in an effort to help them feel comfortable and welcome here on campus,” says O’Leary. “And, we’ve set up the program so kids aren’t seeing the same thing over and over. It’s really fun for the kids. And it’s really fun for us, too.”

O’Leary and Allen hope that providing the Racine students multiple visits to campus will open their eyes to the opportunities a UW-Madison engineering education can deliver. “With their experience, most of the kids are saying they love the campus and they want to come back,” says Allen. “It’s pretty neat to look into the kids’ eyes and see that joy of learning.”

That was the case for current engineering student Kayla Marzette, who as a high school freshman was among the first cohort of students to travel to campus from Racine. Today, Marzette is a student leader for Exploring Engineering Day, and credits the program for helping her decide to attend UW-Madison. “Had she not come in high school, she probably wouldn’t have come here for college,” says O’Leary.

Racine high-school student Victoria Jensen, who says math and science are among her passions, is following in those same footsteps. In addition to Exploring Engineering Day, she has participated multiple times in Camp Badger and has also attended the Engineering Career Academy and the UW-Madison PEOPLE program. “If it wasn’t for the fact that I went to these, I would never have gotten familiar with campus,” she says. “I would have been one of those regular students, trying to do their best in school but not sure what their future was. This helped me figure out what I want to do. It led me to the fact that engineering is so awesome.”

Renee Meiller