Stem the tide

Expansion of engineering programs helps build talent in the New North

Posted on May 14, 2019 :: Cover Story
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Posted by , Insight on Manufacturing Staff Writer

There was a time when Nick German, FIRST Robotics mentor at the Tesla Engineering Charter School at Appleton East High School, had trouble getting parents to let their kids sign up for classes in his program. They still had the idea that manufacturing was a dirty or dead-end job, and frankly, so did school counselors, he says.

“We’ve had conversations with kids trying to sign up for our classes and parents step in and say, ‘You will not take that class,’” German says. “It took us a long time to get our counselors beyond the point of saying, ‘You’re too smart.’”

Largely, that stigma has died — and the successful Tesla program at Appleton East has such a strong reputation that it’s shifted to a point where kids sometimes think they’re not smart enough to enter
it (they are).

The Tesla program, with the FIRST Robotics team as its flagship, is part of the growing number of engineering programs and offerings in the New North from the elementary level through postsecondary education.

The NEW Manufacturing Alliance and NEW ERA (Northeast Wisconsin Educational Resource Alliance) helped spark the effort to increase options, which continue to grow. As the need for engineers of all types expands, so does the work among educators to keep up with the demand.

Expanded higher ed options

Engineering programs at the higher education level have been available in the New North for several years, but they usually required students to finish their education elsewhere.

Fox Valley Technical College established an electrical engineering degree program arrangement with the Milwaukee School of Engineering and Marquette University. Northeast Wisconsin Technical College once offered an on-campus four-year degree program with the University of Wisconsin-Stout, but now has transfer agreements with UW-Green Bay and UW-Oshkosh instead.

UW-Fox Valley launched a partnership with UW-Platteville about 15 years ago. Now, through the restructuring of the UW System, UW-Oshkosh inherits that partnership.

Students can enroll in mechanical and electrical engineering degree programs offered by UW-Platteville but take classes in Menasha or Oshkosh. UW-Oshkosh also offers an engineering technology major.

“Northeast Wisconsin is one of the most active areas in terms of manufacturing, but there is an unmet need for engineers in this region,” says UW-Oshkosh Chancellor Andrew Leavitt, who is also chairman of NEW ERA.

The UW-Platteville/UW-Fox Valley relationship has provided about 10 engineers annually to the area. Even with other regional programs, the area still has a difficult time keeping up with demand, Leavitt says.

“We need homegrown engineers, and there’s plenty of talent that we need to keep in Wisconsin,” he says. “One of the ways to do it is by offering these kinds of engineering options to students where they live.”

Educators and manufacturing leaders say introducing kids to engineering pathways early is one important way to spark their interest and keep them in the region.

UW-Oshkosh offers dual-enrollment credits where students can earn college credit while still in high school. About 3,500 high school students are enrolled in Cooperative Academic Partnership Program (CAPP) classes in which high school teachers with master’s degrees teach the courses.

The university’s 1+3 program allows engineering technology students to complete the first year of the four-year program while still in high school, encouraging more students to enroll and helping reduce the cost of college. As of the 2017-18 school year, three credits at UW-Oshkosh cost $919, whereas three CAPP credits cost $270.

Offering additional scholarship opportunities can help get more students into engineering programs and free them up to focus on classes instead of working part-time, says John Katers, dean of the College of Science and Technology at UW-Green Bay. This can help retain students and ensure their long-term success, he says.

“If you look at our student body we have a large number of first-generation college students,” Katers says. “There are still a whole bunch of kids out there that have huge financial needs.”

UW-Green Bay has offered pre-engineering programs for many decades, with students moving on to UW-Madison, UW-Platteville, Michigan Tech and elsewhere to finish their degree.

About six years ago, the school launched the engineering technology program, and “we saw pretty rapid development of those programs,” Katers says. This led to developing the UW-Green Bay School of Engineering and a mechanical engineering program, which launched in July 2018.

About 30 declared students are enrolled in the program, and UW-Green Bay plans to add faculty this fall. The school’s new STEM Innovation Center will open in August, and it will house the new Richard J. Resch School of Engineering, the UW-Extension, the Brown County Land and Water Conservation Department, and the Einstein Project, a nonprofit that works to elevate STEM education.

With the restructuring of the UW System, UW-Green Bay also will expand engineering programs at the Marinette, Manitowoc and Sheboygan campuses, with plans for a new electrical engineering program in the works. With so many manufacturers and other industries seeking talent, Northeast Wisconsin is a prime location for engineering training, Katers says.

“In my opinion, it’s been an oversight not to have it up here, and I’m the perfect example,” he says.

Katers was a UW-Green Bay student who transferred to UW-Madison and ultimately earned his Ph.D. from Marquette University. “I liked the type of education I got at the Green Bay campus, and unfortunately I couldn’t get an engineering degree here. I think there’s a lot of students in that same situation.”

High schools Take lead

A lot more students will seek engineering education because of new and growing K-12 programs, where kids can begin early down a STEM pathway.

At an early meeting when organizers were formulating the idea for Tesla, a community member told Appleton East’s German that his job was to share his passion for engineering with the school’s youth. The idea stuck and continues to guide him.

The Appleton Area School District was already getting some of the highest scores for math and science in the state, but Tesla was about getting students to the next level. Through the program, Appleton high school students can take engineering-related classes for the first part of their day.

“We’re trying to make sure students are getting into some high-end schools,” German says. “We have students that are starting AP Calculus as freshmen.”

Many students come back after school to participate on the high-ranking FIRST Robotics team, which served as the catalyst for launching Tesla. School leaders told German they wanted to replicate what was happening at night during the school day, and the robotics program remains core.

FIRST Robotics takes teams of students to tournaments, where robots they build must complete tasks. This year’s “deep space” theme required robots to load cargo into a spaceship. The 83-student team has 30 professional volunteer mentors, many of them from Plexus, which has been a huge supporter over the years, German says.

One Plexus engineer worked with a student on a senior project to create a charger for any kind of battery. The student went on to MSOE and eventually got a job at Plexus.

“I teach digital electronics, and that was way beyond what I was capable of doing,” German says. “Our students get a chance to do so much because we have that brain power and those resources to make it happen.”

Tesla launched in the 2002-03 school year under the framework of FIRST Robotics and Project Lead the Way (PLTW), a nonprofit organization that develops STEM curriculum within schools. With German and teacher Sean Schuff trained in PLTW, AASD was one of the first in the state to incorporate the program. Today, about 200 schools use PLTW.

Last year’s graduating Tesla class of 29 students received more than $300,000 in scholarships and went on to top-tier universities. Tesla has about 130 students, and 21 will graduate next month.

“We have about 50 students coming in every year, and there’s a little bit of atrophy, which to us is good. We want students exploring careers,” German says.

German and Schuff tell their students that robotics and engineering are about making the world a better place, and that extends beyond mechanical solutions to problems — it’s about the process and all that goes into it, German says.

The program benefits any student, not just those planning to pursue an engineering degree. It builds an important problem-solving skill set and provides technical knowledge and language that proves important in communication and other areas of business and industry.

“We have students who have gone on to become lawyers and doctors,” German says. “It’s about systems, understanding how the world works and process. Regardless of what field (students) go into after this, these skill sets are going to make them better at that.”

An early start

About seven years ago, King Elementary School leaders in Green Bay began talking about STEM, visiting other elementary schools with a STEM focus before deciding to build a program around engineering design principles.

“It’s very higher-order thinking — it develops analytical skills and some of those soft skills of working together and problem-solving,” says Diane Stelmach, principal at King. “It puts kids in the driver’s seats of their own learning.”

King sent some of its teachers to MSOE for training, and grants provided MacBooks to every teacher and equipped classrooms with smart panels. Every student starting in 4K has access to an iPad mini, and by second grade they each have a Chromebook. Every educator in the building is considered a STEM teacher, including the art and music instructors.

“We’re on a mission to help kids integrate those problem-solving principles throughout the day,” Stelmach says. “We want to think big.”

The school also encourages creative thinking and problem-solving through “unplugged” methods, employing tools such as Legos or even marshmallows and spaghetti sticks. In addition, computer coding lessons start in 4K and go through fifth grade and are part of the school’s summer programming.

King works closely with the Oneida Nation and Northeast Wisconsin Technical College, which brings in its Engineering Design Club to work on projects with kids and offers students the opportunity to see college as a possibility.

“We want to be able to provide all of our children here opportunity, so that when they leave us in fifth grade, they have choices,” Stelmach says. “They can decide for themselves when they get into middle school at Lombardi — which has another path of STEM in engineering — they can keep going.”

Getting kids into a mindset of believing in their skills — and in themselves — has far-reaching impacts. Some research indicates kids need opportunities in sciences and STEM by second grade, or they — particularly girls — will lock themselves out of it, Stelmach says. Young kids are excited to learn and try new things, so it’s the perfect time to start.

Though the program focuses on STEM skills, it isn’t just about producing future engineers. 

“We’re trying to create and embed foundational skills into all of our children,” Stelmach says. “So, when they leave here, they can choose for themselves what they want to do and be excited about learning.”