Until recently, it was an equation that didn’t add up. Northeast Wisconsin is home to a heavy concentration of manufacturers, but to complete their engineering education, students had long needed to go outside the region.
This was the case for John Katers, dean of the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay’s College of Science and Technology. He completed the pre-engineering program at UW-Green Bay, but he had to leave the school to finish his degree. This presented a problem. While Katers did return to Northeast Wisconsin, many engineers did not.
“Engineering is a program that we truly believe we need to offer when 25 percent of our jobs in Northeast Wisconsin are manufacturing based. Mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, those are very important programs to help our businesses sustain themselves,” Katers says.
In recent years, the region has come a long way in engineering education. In addition to the mechanical engineering degree and three engineering majors at UW-Green Bay, students can pursue an engineering associate degree at Fox Valley Technology College and Northeast Wisconsin Technical College or a bachelor’s degree in engineering technology at UW-Oshkosh. UW-Platteville also offers engineering programs at UW-Oshkosh, Fox Cities Campus .
Among the many strides the region has made, the opening of UW-Green Bay’s STEM Innovation Center, which includes the Richard J. Resch School of Engineering, is one of the biggest. The facility represents the dedication and efforts of several stakeholders, including the university, UW-Extension, Brown County and manufacturing industry partners.
Located on UW-Green Bay property, the university leased the land to the county, which built the building and owns and operates it. The university pays rent for the space it uses, and the facility is also home to the Brown County UW-Extension, the Brown County Land & Water Conservation Department and the nonprofit Einstein Project. Somerville Architects designed the space, and Miron Construction Co. Inc. served as general contractor.
“It’s fun because it doesn’t look like a typical campus building, and it doesn’t look like a county government building. It has its own personality,” Judy Knudsen, area extension director for the Brown County UW-Extension, says of the space.
Katers says donors were critical to the success of the $23 million project. The project received $5 million in funding from the 2017-2019 state capital budget and $5 million from a half-percent sales tax, leaving a balance of $13 million. Resch led the charge with a $5 million donation, and the George F. Kress Foundation, WPS and Belmark stepped up with major donations.
That support, along with the presence of players such as Green Packers President and CEO Mark Murphy, the Greater Green Bay Chamber and the NEW Manufacturing Alliance, made for a compelling case when UW-Green Bay presented the plan to the UW Board of Regents in Madison, Katers says.
“When you walk in the door and say, ‘We need this,’ it was really difficult for them to say no,” he says.
The center opened its doors in October, and engineering students are just beginning to come into the building. UW-Green Bay’s program is already exceeding expectations, however. Katers says the school anticipated having about 55 mechanical engineering students, and it has 100. The university is bucking higher ed trends and reported a record-breaking fall 2019 enrollment of 8,098 students, up 9.7 percent from 2018.
Katers says the center offers exciting opportunities for many players. It provides area companies a pipeline of engineering talent, giving them a chance to see if students are a long-term fit and allowing those students a chance to earn income while learning more about companies. More than 70 percent of UW-Green Bay students stay within the New North, he says.
The university’s Phoenix Innovation Park — 63 additional acres on the property — offers unlimited potential, Katers says. The school is seeking aspirational corporate partners and professionals to do collaborative research with UW-Green Bay faculty and hire student interns.
The center meets a continuing education need for many. NWTC produces more STEM associate degrees than most other technical colleges in the state, and there’s pent-up demand among students wanting to continue their engineering education, Katers says.
The facility also provides educational outreach opportunities. UW-Green Bay partners with high schools, including Howard-Suamico’s Bay Port High School, to offer students a chance to take transcribed courses through the university. Students could come to the university with as many as 11 credits, available at a much-reduced cost.
“We can use this as a springboard to let (students) know that there are really cool companies in Northeast Wisconsin doing incredibly cutting-edge, leading-edge things,” Katers says.
It’s not just older students who can benefit from the STEM Innovation Center. Kids from elementary school age on up can get hands-on STEM exposure through the facility’s makerspace or participating in a summer camp.
Chad Janowski, executive director of the Einstein Project, says the nonprofit’s move to the center marks a major step forward. The 28-year-old STEM resource center provides science curriculum, instructional materials and professional development opportunities for more than 30 schools in Northeast Wisconsin and beyond, including the Milwaukee area and northern Illinois.
The Einstein Project got its start when a group of school districts got together with business leaders and recognized the quality of science education wasn’t where it could be. Schools needed more hands-on learning opportunities — more doing versus just reading about concepts, Janowski says.
“Students need hands-on experiences to construct their own understanding. The focus right now is on how students can make sense of information on their own, and they need those firsthand experiences in order to provide the foundation of that sense-making experience,” he says.
The UW-Green Bay center includes warehouse space for assembling and shipping Einstein Project kits. Elementary and middle schools use the kits — for example, kids may make a terrarium in a soda bottle — and then send them back.
The new space allows the Einstein Project, which merged with Green Bay nonprofit makerspace Proto a few years ago, to expand and further its mission, Janowski says. He would like to see the nonprofit expand to include STEM learning opportunities for high school students, work with students in UW-Green Bay’s Professional Program in Education and continue to work with more school districts.
“It’s creating a memorable learning experience for kids,” he says.