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Hands-on approaches paying off

Hands-on approaches paying off

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The following story originally ran in the Winter 2015 Chippewa Valley Business Report:

With the completion of his first semester attending the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Peter Duerst has plenty to be proud of. But his favorite story from the fall recalls his roommate’s amazement when he hand-built a good share of their dorm room furniture.

In a school full of brilliant scientific minds, basic carpentry may not seem like such an outstanding skill. For Duerst, though, it is symbolic of the early training he received in high school that has not only strengthened his analytical, mathematic and scientific skills, but also given him the tools to put them into practice.

Duerst graduated from Boyceville High School in 2014. And like an increasing number of high schools around the country, Boyceville has put an emphasis on science, technology, engineering and mathematics programs — STEM being the popular acronym.

In many instances, STEM programs receive huge amounts of support from local employers who work hand-in-hand with the schools in hopes of turning out future employees just like Duerst, who are well-versed in STEM subjects and armed with the know-how to apply them in the real world.

At Boyceville, the culmination of STEM efforts is the annual Science Olympiad competitions. Those competitions are available for middle school and high school-aged kids and challenge them to be innovative in a variety of topics, from natural sciences to technology and mathematics. Students not only are given the opportunity to dive deeper into 28 STEM topics, but to create things through hands-on activities.

Duerst first got involved in Science Olympiad in the seventh grade, and after building an award-winning robot that could lift items and move them about the room, he was hooked.

“That was something I wouldn’t be able to do anywhere else. I didn’t have the parts to build it at home, and obviously without Science Olympiad I wouldn’t be able to put it into competition,” he said. “When I first got involved it was just something fun to do, but when I was in high school and I really started seeing the benefits of Science Olympiad for my future, I could better appreciate that.”

Andy Hamm is a science teacher at Boyceville and a catalyst for the STEM movement at the school, which will host the 2016 Science Olympiad national champions pitting more than 2,200 young brains from around the country against each other for individual and team awards. His involvement goes all the way back to 1997 in his days in the Menomonie school system, where he also participated in Science Olympiad.

“Most of the activities are hands-on — they are actually doing something,” Hamm said. “It’s not just sitting down and taking a test.”

He said the increasing number of STEM-related student engagement has led to an exponential uptick in the number of students who are taking and passing advanced placement exams, earning early college credit and ultimately, as in the case of Duerst, ending up with invites to some of the most prestigious universities in the country.

“It’s like they have to have the opportunity to get excited,” Hamm said. “They have to be presented with interesting and curiosity-opening opportunities. They have to be given the opportunity to try different things. They have to ask the question, ‘Why?’”

The success of Hamm’s former students has cemented his faith of Science Olympiad and solid STEM foundations.

“The most satisfying part is seeing students go off and have success after high school,” Hamm said. “That’s the end goal, seeing kids truly prepared for the next step … whether it’s the military or the workforce or whatever.”

Community support

Boyceville’s continued success in its STEM programs are the result of a labor of love when compared with other programs in the state. As a small community with little industry, Boyceville High School doesn’t benefit from the financial support other programs get in areas where there are more employers to invest. Though monetary donations from 3M, the Walmart distribution center and a 3-D printer from Fairmont-Santrol in Menomonie have been critical for the school, it often relies on its own fundraising events to provide equipment, transportation and to make sure money is not a barrier for low-income students to get involved.

Hamm said Boyceville could greatly benefit from the kind of flagship program Ariens helped build at Brillion High School, in the eastern part of the state.

Ariens, a popular manufacturer of snowblowers and other small engine machinery, donated $1.5 million in 2007 to double the size of the STEM wing at the high school. Ariens’ interest in the school is mutually beneficial, in that Brillion High School provides students an unparalleled opportunity to get hands-on experience in the sciences and also produces skilled workers for Ariens and other technical employers in the area.

In the world of post-secondary education, UW-Stout also benefits from the helping hand of local industry. As a so-called polytechnic university, Stout is one of the only universities in the area — and one of few in the country — that offers advanced degrees in manufacturing and other trades traditionally considered blue collar, as well as the cutting-edge programs like video game design and biotechnology.

Charles Bomar, dean of the College of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics at Stout, said the school has put an “inordinate amount” of time and resources into STEM outreach because as jobs in those fields become more mechanized and see more baby-boomer retirements, young people with those skills are becoming more highly prized.

It is for those reasons employers have supported the school’s STEM-related programs with foundation accounts, professorships and, in the case of one anonymous donor, the creation of an entire digital marketing program. Industry support also contributed to the construction of a new $43 million, state-of-the-art lab building for STEM programs at UW-Stout.

“Really our goal is two-fold. There are 72 different labs in the college that our students have access to depending on what program they’re in, and every student is required to have an internship before they graduate,” Bomar said. “So it becomes a sort of apprentice-style education where they’re getting real hands-on experience. And that’s our mission right there.

“To follow that up, each one of our programs has industry advisory boards. So we’re in a continuous feedback loop. They’re telling us what’s going on and where we need to be at.”

Infinite incentives

Duerst said he hopes to someday work in the material science engineering field, specifically related to the development of materials that can convert ambient heat into energy. For him, much of the appeal of STEM fields lie in working a job that offers daily challenges, discovery and the ability to make a difference in the world.

“I feel that my experiences that I’ve had at high school through Science Olympiad definitely better prepared me for going out into the workforce and going into college and learning more about what I’m going to be doing,” Duerst said. “It’s really exciting. Talking to my friends that I’m making on campus and knowing that they’re going to go out and do some cool things … it feels like I’m really in an environment where we’re pushing each other to be the best we can. We have a lot of fun together.”

Though some of the benefits are more idealistic, other incentives for working in technical science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields are quite tangible.

In today’s job market where a great many college graduates are struggling to find meaningful, full-time work, UW-Stout’s placement rate remains at a stellar 97 percent overall and nearly 100 percent in certain programs. Companies such as Anderson Windows, Phillips Plastics, 3M and Vets Plus look to Stout first for employees and are willing to pay for their skills — and students know it.

Jacalyn Weissenburger, interim provost and vice chancellor for Academic and Student Affairs at Stout, said that providing students with quality career options is a point of pride for the university.

“In short, our students have options about where they want to work, who they want to work for, and what job responsibilities they would like to take on,” she said. “Many of our students have multiple job offers before they graduate. That’s what a UW-Stout diploma means: Exciting career options right out of the gate.

“And because our graduates take rigorous courses that also develop their critical thinking, writing, and problem solving skills, our graduates are prepared for career advancement.”

Bomar echoed that sentiment, and said for those reasons enrollment in the university’s 14 undergraduate programs related to STEM is “up, up, up.” To put it in perspective, enrollment in those programs has risen by more than 700 students in the past seven years. And though Bomar said the ratio is not quite where it needs to be, participation of women in STEM programs continues to rise as time goes on.

“The reality is that they’re high-paying jobs,” he said. “It’s incredible to me … kids in things like computer engineering and packaging are literally walking out the door with mid-50s to low 60s (salaries in thousands), and that’s their starting wage. It’s incredible. For a 22-year-old kid to make 60 grand a year, that’s significant.”

Those skills and that money also fatten the collective wallet of the community, Bomar said.

“I think the basic short story is that it doesn’t matter if you’re at Stout or Green Bay or wherever, ultimately most kids want to stay in the region,” he said. “So creating a locally-educated, STEM-focused workforce is going to have a huge impact on the local economy.”

“It becomes a sort of apprentice-style education where they’re getting real hands-on experience. And that’s our mission right there.” Charles Bomar, UW-Stout dean

“They have to be presented with interesting and curiosity-opening opportunities. They have to be given the opportunity to try different things. They have to ask the question, ‘Why?’” Andy Hamm, Boyceville High School science teacher

Rob Hanson is a freelance writer from Eau Claire. He can be reached at hansonrw@outlook.com

“They have to be presented with interesting and curiosity-opening opportunities. They have to be given the opportunity to try different things. They have to ask the question, ‘Why?’”

Andy Hamm, Boyceville High School science teacher

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"It becomes a sort of apprentice-style education where they’re getting real hands-on experience. And that’s our mission right there."

Charles Bomar, UW-Stout dean

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