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Summer school a hit with two "grand" generations

Grandparents and grandson with a toothpick bridge

The strongest toothpick bridge held more than $12 worth of pennies, although this one didn't hold that much. (large image)

At Grandparents University July 14 and 15, grandchildren and grandparents in the engineering “major” learned about bridges, biomaterials, torque, gear ratios, autos and more, and engaged in several hands-on engineering projects of their own.

And despite their newfound engineering knowledge, perhaps the most important lesson the students took with them was this: If at first you don't succeed, try, try again.

The adage is the cornerstone of the engineering design process, which requires engineers to define a problem, brainstorm ideas, choose and test a design, analyze the results, and then determine ways to improve the design. The group learned the process right away and “students” young and old applied it throughout their two-day education.

“If you try something and it doesn't work and you say, ‘I quit,’ then that's bad,” said Associate Dean for Academic Affairs Pat Farrell during a short lecture to the group. “But if you try something and it doesn't work and you learn from it, that's good.”

Engineering was one of eight majors offered during Grandparents U. Sponsored by the Wisconsin Alumni Association (WAA) and UW-Extension, the program gave alumni and their grandchildren ages 7 to 14 the chance to stay in the dorms, attend “classes” and earn a “degree” together. Although Grandparents U is in its fourth year, engineering joined the curriculum this year — and with 48 participants, entered as the year's most popular major, says Sarah Schutt, alumni learning outreach specialist at UW-Madison and WAA.

“I like how creative it is — how many hands-on things there are, rather than just listening and watching other people do it,” said Joshua Wallace, a 13-year-old from Milwaukee, about engineering.

“You get to try it and figure it out yourself,” added his twin sister, Hannah.

Eighth-graders Rebecca Gardner and Jacob Cooper were fourth-year “students” and looked forward to attending the engineering major because they want to become engineers. “I hope to be a civil engineer,” said Cooper, “and build bridges and roads and stuff like that.”

Building and testing toothpick bridges

One of the most popular activities in the engineering major of Grandparents University was building toothpick bridges and testing them by adding more and more weight. (large image)

Before, he wanted to build houses, said his 11-year-old sister, Sarah. “He wanted to build himself a big mansion,” she joked.

After an overview of biomedical engineering in which BME graduate students passed around an artificial heart, a knee model, a pacemaker, and hip and knee replacements, Grandparents U students formed six groups that tackled their own biomedical engineering design problems. Charged with developing a microwave that a person who is both deaf and blind can use, one group first identified what senses the disabled individual could use and adapted its design accordingly. The result: a device that vibrates when the food is done and operates either via voice recognition or a Braille keypad. Working on a vial that accurately mixes a powdered medicine with water right before a patient must take the drug, kids in another group took the lead and developed detailed drawings that included some basic material specifications.

Then it was on to building bridges. Engineering Professional Development Professor Emeritus Don Walker showed pictures of many bridge types and quizzed students about how each component works under loads, what materials work best, and what environmental factors bridge designers must consider. Using software, students tried to build cost-effective virtual bridges that could still bear the weight of a virtual semi truck as it sped across.

In that exercise, as well as the next in which they used toothpicks and hot glue to build real bridges, students learned about persistence in failure. “We finally got our virtual bridge to work,” said 9-year-old Joel Cryer from Madison, who said his final design would cost $101,803 to build. A budding engineer who builds “all sorts of contraptions and robots at home” and at one invention camp, developed an automatic bed-maker, Cryer also was excited about building motorized cars.

A tour of the Myers Student Automotive Center, where the college's FutureTruck, FutureCar, Future Energy Challenge Zero Carbon Car, Clean Snowmobile, and Mini-Baja car are housed, inspired students to build their own cars — particularly after they saw the baja car zip nimbly up some exterior steps with little effort. Mechanical engineering senior Louie Mingione, one of the major's “instructors,” gave a kid-friendly lecture about torque and gear ratios, relating the concepts to pedaling and shifting gears on his bicycle.

The car-building didn't go as well as engineering “dean” (and Engineering Professional Development Professor) Phil O’Leary and Mingione hoped. Their prototype worked like a charm, but in mass-production some variation crept in and some students' cars didn't come together. Rather than dwell on what didn't work, however, O'Leary encouraged them to learn from the experience. “Go home and get it working,” he said.

Grandparents University participants

Kids at Grandparents University eagerly absorbed engineering principles without realizing they were learning them. And as grandparent Gus Kressin said about his grandson, Phillip Radtke (center), “I enjoy watching him” (large image)

In addition to attending “class,” Grandparents U students also attended a Kohl Center tailgate, played games on the arena's front lawn, watched the movie Miracle, and ate dorm food. The all-majors graduation ceremony hit a high note, as did the program's keynote speech by UW Band Director Mike Leckrone, who regaled the crowd with moments of happiness from his musical career here. He called archaeology “studying old band directors” and defined teamwork as “a whole bunch of people doing what I say.” But his advice mirrored Farrell's: “Failure isn't the worst thing that can happen,” he said. “The worst thing that can happen is not learning from that failure.”

Although many grandparents participated with their grandkids in majors far different from their own degrees, they viewed the experience as a fun way to expose the kids to a variety of educational and career choices. Mostly, however, Grandparents U provided an opportunity for two generations to spend quality time together. As he spotted grandson Phillip Radtke intently studying a toothpick bridge as weight was added to test its strength, grandparent Gus Kressin said, “I enjoy watching him.”