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  5. Wisconsin Rapids middle school students learn what it takes to be an engineer

Wisconsin Rapids middle school students learn what it takes to be an engineer

Engineering Professional Development Professor Phil O’Leary talks to Wisconsin Rapids students between activities during their day on the engineering campus.
Engineering Professional Development Professor Phil O’Leary talks to Wisconsin Rapids students between activities during their day on the engineering campus.

Using textbooks alone, it can be difficult to get kids interested in science. But when it means they get to drop dozens of eggs from a height of two stories, they tend to get pretty excited–at least, if the reaction of 60 sixth and seventh graders from Wisconsin Rapids Area Middle School serves as an indicator. 

The group visited the University of Wisconsin-Madison College of Engineering April 27 as part of the first of a series of regular trips aimed at providing Wisconsin middle school students an idea of what a career in science, technology, engineering or math could look like. 

The Wisconsin Rapids visitors spent the first half of the day learning about life as a UW-Madison engineering student. Then they capped off the day with the aforementioned egg drop, a demonstration from the UW Steel Bridge team, and naturally, UW-Madison’s famous Babcock Hall ice cream. 

By inviting Wisconsin Rapids students to campus, Engineering Professional Development Professor Phil O’Leary hopes to replicate a similar successful program  that, for the past nine years, has targeted students in Racine. "We wanted to see if the special arrangements that had developed over the years at Racine's middle schools–where kids earn their way to come by doing extra homework and getting their parents involved–would be transferrable to another school," says O'Leary.

A Wisconsin Rapids Area Middle School student shows off his design for the egg drop.
A Wisconsin Rapids Area Middle School student shows off his design for the egg drop.

For Wisconsin Rapids students, the day on campus was more than a simple field trip–it was both an award for high-achieving students and an extension of lessons about careers in engineering, both in the classroom and at home. "They spent a fair amount of time on research,” says Wisconsin Rapids Area Middle School counselor Randy Chip. “Hopefully they're a little more prepared, so they know a little bit about what they're seeing today and can take a more active part in it."

The students certainly seemed energized by what they experienced. At lunch, a table of students argued over which engineering discipline is better, settling on chemical engineering, because, say the students, they get paid over $100,000 a year. Student Norman Bambenek emphatically described the interesting vehicle designs he saw in the garage where the UW student vehicle teams work on their competition projects. "The cars are really cool because some of them were just made from scratch, even the motor," says Bambenek. 

Current UW student Shannon Kelly–who now helps to organize trips like this after visiting campus in 6th grade as part a similar school trip from Racine–encouraged the students at her lunch table to channel their excitement into their schoolwork. “It’s very important for you to study hard and keep up with homework, so that you’ll be well prepared for college.”

Braidon Allery, another Wisconsin Rapids student, seemed prepared to join the UW vehicle teams "tomorrow" if team advisor Glenn Bower would allow it. "I'm already used to building lots of stuff," says Allery.  

O’Leary wants to stress an important part of the college experience—the more you put into to something, the more you get out of it—to young students. "We wanted to see if this could be a sort of 'best practice' for campus visits,” says O’Leary. “We think students, by doing more preparation for a campus visit, will learn more as we get into technical detail."

Getting students invested in the trip is much easier than getting them interested in engineering, says O’Leary, who aims to encourage them to start talking about their educational future now. “I want students and their parents to be thinking about which future opportunities they want to pursue,” he says.

Middle school counselor Chip concurs, stressing that engaging students in dialog about their career options—and the academic pursuits needed to make them a reality—at an early age needs to be a top priority for both parents and teachers. "I think because they are so young, they don't know a lot about the engineering field,” says Chip. “This a good way for them to explore what it is.” 

Mark Riechers
5/24/2012