Engineering offers classes to kids

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  • The College of Engineering Outreach Program is holding robotics classes for students ages eight to 18 this week.
  • The program seeks to educate the community about engineering, foster children's interest in the field and help recruit them to Marquette.
  • The self-sustaining program has significantly increased its attendance and number of sessions offered since its inception in 2006.

A smile lights up Charlee's face as she starts talking about engineering. She is only 13 years old, but the seventh grader is already set on becoming a biomedical or mechanical engineer.

"I like taking stuff apart," said Charlee, a student at the Milwaukee Academy of Science. "Knowing I can make the future better is exciting."

This week, Charlee and about 20 other students are spending three days of their spring break attending robotics classes offered by Marquette's College of Engineering Outreach Program. The students, ages 8 to 18, are working with LEGO Mindstorms RCX and NXT robots, and programming them to navigate obstacle courses and accomplish physical tasks.

The program began in the summer of 2006 with six courses and 64 students, said Lori Stempski, an office associate in the College of Engineering. The number of programs and attendees has increased each successive year.

This school year, the program expanded to 30 sessions held year-round. The year's attendance could reach 500 students by the end of the summer, Stempski said in an e-mail.

The program's growth during its first four years has exceeded expectations, said Jon Jensen, associate dean for enrollment management in the College of Engineering.

"That's been gratifying for us," Jensen said.

Jensen started the outreach program with Jack Samuelson, a former high school science teacher in Waukesha. Samuelson served as a private consultant until being made outreach coordinator last June.

Besides offering courses on campus, the program involves visits to local schools, workshops for local teachers and engineering conferences, Samuelson said.

The college makes no profit from the "self-sustaining"

program, Samuelson said. In addition to student fees, the college covers some costs.

This week's 15-hour course costs $150 per person. The fee depends on material costs and the amount of items constructed that students bring home afterward, Samuelson said.

Samuelson serves as lead instructor. College professors, current students and professional engineers help teach classes, Stempski said.

Samuelson said the program provides a community service by educating kids about engineering.

"We want to make sure the community is aware of the contributions engineers make and the opportunities available to kids," Samuelson said.

Another goal of the program is to enhance the science, technology, engineering and mathematics skills of American students, which lag behind those of foreign countries, Samuelson said. The United States only graduates about half of the engineers needed, he said.

"The key is getting kids interested (in engineering) at a young age," Samuelson said. "If we can get kids curious and keep it going, hopefully we can produce all the engineers we need."

The program also serves as a recruiting tool for the college, Samuelson said.

"We want to identify and bring in the best and brightest engineers to Marquette," Samuelson said.

Attendees of the college's outreach programs normally hail from the Milwaukee area, but the summer sessions attract students from as far away as Arizona, Samuelson said.

Nearly 20 current freshman engineering students have participated in the programs. Another four or five former participants might attend Marquette next fall, Jensen said.

Lauren Adrian, a freshman in the College of Engineering, attended a program at Marquette the summer before her senior year at Cedarburg High School. At the time, she was still trying to figure out a career to pursue. After the Engineering for Young Women conference, she realized engineering was the field for her.

Adrian said she loves the challenges engineering presents, and her future degree will open up opportunities in a variety of professions.

The summer program was also instrumental in her decision to attend Marquette.

"Without the outreach program, I probably wouldn't have ended up at Marquette," Adrian said.

Samuelson said the program focuses on cultivating the interest of females in engineering, who are underrepresented in the field. Women constitute more than 20 percent of engineering students at Marquette, compared to about 18 percent nationally, he said. Marquette is in the top 20 nationally for number of women studying engineering.

Before attending the Engineering for Young Women conference, Adrian thought engineering was primarily for males.

"I was excited to see that other women are interested in engineering," Adrian said.

The outreach program will hold two events in October celebrating women engineers, Samuelson said.

The events will be part of Marquette's 100th anniversary celebration of women being admitted to the university, Jensen said.

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