by Lauren Sklba
For some Wisconsin educators, the term “Wisconsin Idea” may be new and unfamiliar, but that doesn’t mean that its impact is insignificant.
While the Wisconsin Idea’s impact may stretch wide, the term itself does not always carry. Jake Blanchard, the Executive Associate Dean within the College of Engineering, came to the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1988 from southern California, not having heard of the Wisconsin Idea before taking a position at the university.
“I came just because of the caliber of the department,” Blanchard said. “I could barely tell the difference between Wisconsin and Michigan.”
Having moved from assistant professor to executive associate dean, Blanchard now has a better grasp on the Wisconsin Idea.
“It’s really the contribution we make, largely through research but also through our educational programs, the contribution to the state economy,” Blanchard said.
Two hours from her work place and responsible for children who are not her own, Kelly Gudaitis, a science teacher at Starbuck Elementary School in Racine, Wisconsin, attended UW-Madison’s Engineering EXPO. For her students, coming to a UW campus allows them to get their hands working and experience engineering in a more tangible sense.
The Engineering EXPO is a three-day event put on by UW Engineering students. It is a public event that has over 10,000 visitors biennially, focusing on outreach to elementary, middle and high schools.
While Gudaitis had not been aware of the Wisconsin Idea, she has seen its impact in her own classroom. Gudaitis said that had some of her students never experienced the Engineering EXPO, they wouldn’t have pursued the field. After the EXPO, Gudaitis said she noticed an increased interest in Engineering Club and a greater engagement in class activities.
“They put more effort into the projects we’re doing, and they think more on terms of how it could benefit them and other people,” Gudaitis said. “Now they see the reason for it.”
Gudaitis teaches science but also advises Starbuck’s after-school Engineering Club alongside Clarence Allen, a retired Racine Unified School District counselor. Allen also helped bring students to the EXPO and has seen its long-term impact on his students.
“I have one student who started as a sixth grader, and he’s taking an engineering class at Case High School,” Allen said. “He went to the U.S. Naval Academy STEM program last summer as an eighth grader … That says something.”
RUSD middle school students interested in engineering are able to take classes at local high schools in partnership with Project Lead the Way, a program that focuses on the process and application of engineering in the classroom rather than simply getting correct answers.
Allen also said that their engineering club has worked with Phil O’Leary, UW-Madison professor and chairman of the Department of Engineering Professional Development. This partnership has encouraged students to attend Camp Badger, a summer camp sponsored by the UW College of Engineering and Engineering Professional Development that explores engineering fields and careers. Campers spend a week in the dorms at UW-Madison, getting an early peek at campus life and college education.
EPD offers non-credit courses to allow engineers to further their education and for-credit courses largely online that contribute to Master’s degree programs.
“Engineers from around the state and really around the country will come here … and learn about something new in their area, just to keep up with the profession,” Blanchard said. “It’s an important contribution for the development of practicing engineers.”
Engineering students that attend UW-Madison are an integral part to spreading the Wisconsin Idea’s mission.
Madeline Ford, a sophomore studying Industrial Engineering, has seen the Wisconsin Idea shape her path for years leading up to her college career.
“I came to this event in high school and was also involved in a research project at UW-Madison in high school.” Ford said. “The Engineering EXPO is where I figured out that I wanted to be an engineer. I realized what all of the possible careers choices could be that I wasn’t exposed to in high school.”
Ford currently works in an Innovation Lab, working to improve healthcare systems, specifically at the UW Hospital.
“Our lab doesn’t accept how the healthcare system works right now,” Ford said. “We’re working towards improving it everyday, and I think that’s how the Wisconsin Idea is … Our lab is about improvement.”
The lab works in the UW Hospital at times, shadowing at the cancer clinic to get a better sense of what needs improvement.
Chris Ross, a graduate student who works in the lab alongside Ford, said that patients are excited about the work students are doing to improve their experience. Major issues the clinic’s patients deal with include long waits times, disorganization and a lack of communication, according to Ross.
“Our main idea is making things better for patients,” Ford said. “I mean, yes, we’d like to save the hospital money and have everything run smoother, but the patient is the most important.”
Hannah Frank, a biomedical engineering student, echoed the sentiments of Ford and Ross. Working a stand at the Engineering EXPO, Frank was able to work with younger students and show them the university’s innovative work.
“We’re working with kids of all ages, trying to get them excited about engineering, excited about our school and its mission.” Frank said. “Our exhibit isn’t even that cool and kids are still excited to learn and answer questions.”
Frank said she did not know about the Wisconsin Idea before attending UW-Madison, but the concept played a large factor in her college choice. She remembers students from Madison coming to her church and school to work with her.
“I knew they had a lot of opportunities, a lot of resources, a lot of people that are just willing to help you and find what you’re looking for, a lot of different groups that you could be a part of … so it was definitely an idea in my head that inspired me,” Frank said.
The College of Engineering implements the Wisconsin Idea in more ways than one, just as the Idea itself is not limited to one area of study.
Allen describes the Wisconsin Idea’s mission as “to go out and help others with anything that deals with the university, whether it’s farming, engineering, English or journalism, and to pass on that message about the university.”
According to Blanchard, many universities have statewide impacts, but the established outline of Wisconsin Idea sets UW apart.
“I think we’re more conscious of it because of the concept,” Blanchard said. “I think it is in your mind. It enhances what we do and the impact we have on the state just by having that be a part of the culture.”
“This campus really cares about the community, and that is shown through different outreach that we have,” Ford said. “They care about the students that are coming in and trying to get them excited.”
To learn more about the College of Engineering click here.
For a student’s personal experience with the engineering program, click here.