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Racine students explore engineering’s possibilities at UW-Madison

Middle-school students from Racine get a close look at the clean snowmobile that UW-Madison students build for an annual competition.

Middle- and high-school students from the Racine Unified School District visited the UW-Madison College of Engineering Friday, November 8, 2013, and left not only with a few lessons in applied science and engineering, but also with greater confidence that a university education is a fully attainable goal.

As part of Exploring Engineering Day, about 130 Racine-area students spent the day visiting labs on the UW-Madison campus, participating in design projects, and learning the finer points of college admissions and charting engineering careers. The day included visits to such facilities as the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery and UW Hospitals and Clinics. It also included such activities as a talk on the fundamentals of laproscopic surgery, hands-on bridge-building exercises, and tours of the engineering student automotive garage and Polymer Engineering Center, among others.

The visit involved interactions with faculty from across the nine College of Engineering departments, but what really fueled the day was the Racine students' knowledge and curiosity. During a tour of the student automotive garage, middle-schoolers grilled undergraduate Michael Carlson on the particulars of the SAE Clean Snowmobile Team and how to set up a safe lab for testing an engine. In another session, high school students asked Mechanical Engineering Associate Professor Dan Negrut what programming languages are most used in his work with the Wisconsin Applied Computing Center. 

Students came armed with more than just a general interest in engineering. Many showed up with specific ambitions shaped by their experiences in the classroom and beyond.  

Savannah Ahnen, a sixth-grader from McKinley Middle School, enjoyed the day’s automotive-engineering component because she often helps her father fix cars and plans to build a go-kart next summer. Learning about the Department of Biomedical Engineering resonated even more deeply with Savannah. “I’d like to go into biomedical engineering, because some of my family members have Crohn’s disease, so I’ve always been interested in trying to stop the spread of it,” she said.

Exploring Engineering Day gave students hands-on exposure to many facets of a UW-Madison engineering education.

Starbuck Middle eighth-grader Eric Sorensen called the day "awesome.” Sorenson is interested in studying electrical or mechanical engineering. “I hadn’t seen a lot of this stuff before,” he said. 

Sorenson said he also learned a lot about what kinds of grades, test scores, and community-service requirements he should consider now to make a UW-Madison engineering education a reality.

In addition to specifics about applications and admissions, students gained some broader perspective on following their passions in the sciences. Negrut, who is involved in both mechanical engineering and supercomputing, joked to high-school students that he’d undergone an “identity crisis,” but told them such uncertainty isn’t necessarily a bad thing. “What’s interesting is the process of becoming,” Negrut said.

Brian Núñez, assistant director for pre-college and outreach programs in the College of Engineering Diversity Affairs Office, led high-school groups in sessions about the college admissions process. Núñez said that talking with the students from Racine was an important part of his office’s work to draw students from a variety of backgrounds and ensure the college has an impact statewide and beyond.

“It reinforces our mission and the Wisconsin Idea,” he said.

Scott Gordon
11/11/2013