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  5. Alumni and students ‘cook up’ future of vehicle teams

Alumni and students ‘cook up’ future of vehicle teams

 Attendees at the 2009 Detroit Road Trip Rally test-drove the UW-Madison Formula hybrid vehicle.

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Few university vehicle teams can attribute their success to hamburgers—lots and lots of hamburgers. Yet that’s exactly what future members of the University of Wisconsin-Madison vehicle teams will be able to do.

At the 2009 Society of Automotive (SAE) Engineers Baja Wisconsin competition, held in Burlington, Wisconsin, team members raised $10,000 by running a food stand and serving more than 1,200 attendees. The money has launched an endowment that, with additional alumni support, will preserve the five teams for future generations of students.

“We’d been working on the endowment for a year at that point,” says Mechanical Engineering Faculty Associate Glenn Bower, who advises the vehicle teams. “Alumni got together at the SAE World Congress and came up with the idea the previous April, and we’d been having phone conferences since then.”

When Bower realized he needed $10,000 in startup funds to launch the endowment, team members rallied to help at the food stand, and since then, students and alumni have worked together to keep the early momentum going. So far, alumni and corporate partners have raised approximately $100,000 for the endowment, which has a target goal of $10 million.

Around 300 students are involved in the vehicle teams each year, and of those, 100 students are very dedicated participants, says Bower. This robust alumni base has already begun aiding the endowment effort in unique ways: Under the direction of veteran team member and Ford engineer Mark Polster (BSME ’00), the Detroit chapter of the Wisconsin Alumni Association hosted an event in October 2009 to raise awareness of the teams and the endowment. Bower and a handful of students transported several of the vehicle projects to Michigan, where alumni and automotive industry representatives met the team members and test-drove the vehicle projects.

“As a professional engineer, I cannot imagine a better experience a student could have to prepare him or her for a successful career,” Polster says. “I give back to UW-Madison for many reasons, but mainly, to preserve the quality of students participating in vehicle programs on campus.”

Bower hears this type of sentiment from team alumni frequently. “Alumni realize what a great thing it was to participate on the teams and how much better off they were from the experience,” says Bower. “They look back and appreciate it and want to make sure these teams are available to students in the future.”

In addition to keeping each team a strong contender in national and international competitions, the endowment will allow the program to continue its tradition of producing top-quality engineers with hands-on skills and experiences. Vehicle team alumni go on to work in the automotive industry and other industries ranging from paper mills to energy companies.

Thanks to the vehicle teams, many of these students are able to make significant contributions on the job immediately after graduation, as opposed to needing months of training once hired. Students also recognize the value of the vehicle teams before graduation. Mechanical engineering student Gianluca Mantovano has been part of the Formula hybrid team throughout his undergraduate years. He says the skills he’s learned with the teams have directly transferred to his ability to succeed in internship and co-op positions.

“We’re like plug-and-play engineers,” he says. “The skills and experiences from the vehicle teams make the transition from college to the workplace very smooth.”

Currently, competition fees, project supplies and travel expenses add up to almost $8,000 for each of the five teams every year. The endowment, formally named the Undergraduate Student Automotive Excellence Fund, will allow the vehicle program to permanently fund an advisor, program assistant and machinist, as well as cover competition and project costs.

The support will reduce the need for students like Mantovano to dedicate time and energy to finding funds themselves. “Each team is like its own business,” he says. “Fundraising eats up a lot of time because it’s a slow process to ask for funds and for corporations to approve those funds.”

The endowment will provide a more streamlined approach for supporting the teams and take the pressure off of students to ask for money when interacting with corporate partners. Instead, students can focus on the vehicle projects and building engineering skills and professional networks.

Sandra Knisely