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Computational science immersion inspires another group of high schoolers

ProCSI 2012

 This year's ProCSI students, pictured with Associate Professor Dan Negrut, Professor and Chair Roxann Engelstad, and graduate student Justin Madsen.

“My horizons have been opened up.”

Kim Vue is one of 16 high school students who spent the week of July 16 immersed in University of Wisconsin-Madison research through the Promoting the Computational Science Initiative (ProCSI), run by Mechanical Engineering Associate Professor Dan Negrut and his students. The program is designed to expose underrepresented minority high school students to computational science in an era in which researchers increasingly solve scientific and engineering problems with the help of high-powered computers. During the week, ProCSI students have hands-on access to Negrut’s Simulation Based Engineering Lab and high-capacity parallel computing setup, take lab tours, and learn from engineering faculty, graduate, and undergraduate students about career options in the field.

The students, who came from Milwaukee, Chicago, and as far away as Mableton, Georgia, spent the week experiencing campus computing—from collectively programming a simulated bowling alley in the Living Environment Laboratory’s virtual reality CAVE, housed in the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery building, to “traveling” through the solar system and “dodging” the collapse of a 10-story tower of digital blocks. On another day, they toured graduate student Ryan Penning’s robotics lab and performed “heart surgery” with a joystick that controls a robot designed for minimally invasive catheter insertion.

Negrut, who began the program five years ago with the help of National Science Foundation funding, says he also hopes he can inspire the students to pursue college degrees. “We hope this experience will help them understand that with discipline and effort, they can be accepted here at UW or some other good college,” he says.

He says that in addition to that benefit, the students who leave the program can help raise the bar and inspire peers in their communities. “We see this as a small way in which we can promote the ideals enshrined in our beloved Wisconsin Idea,” he says.

Ivan Colmeres, a senior from Green Bay, was inspired by the heart surgery simulation, and said he might want to get involved in robotics. Another student, Pierre McCauley from Carbondale, Illinois, says he’s interested in electrical engineering, now that he’s seen how it can improve how people live. And Pierre’s brother Denzel says that talking to engineers and engineering students opened up his eyes to new possible careers.

“I felt connected to the real jobs and work engineers can do,” he says.

Kim Vue, from Sheboygan, says she had previously felt intimidated by engineering as a field, and had thought it was too hard. Not anymore: “Engineering is not impossible,” she says. “It’s possible for people who work really, really hard.”

Christie Taylor