UWM and Discovery World team up to captivate freshmen

forte_j1Want to teach engineering students about innovation? Start by teaching them biology, says Heidi Heistad.

forte_j4That’s why, when 15 UWM engineering freshmen signed up for a hands-on project at the Discovery World Center for Public Innovation, they didn’t just build robots, they created machines endowed with some unique abilities of plants.

The students spent eight evenings using engineering and computer programming methods to replicate the behaviors of living organisms, animals and plants – a concept called “biomimicry.”

By the end of the project, the students’ bots captured debris like the notorious Venus Fly Trap, responded to light by turning toward the source like tulips, and even fired projectiles when threatened like some cucumber plants.

“By looking at nature you can learn about math, design, science and engineering,” says Heistad, Discovery World’s media producer and lead experience developer.

But the learning experience did not end with the science and robotics. The group also documented their efforts with video and audio podcasts, produced under the guidance of Heistad along with Educators Ryan Kresse and Paul Mech, known collectively as The Experience Team.

Using Discovery World’s professional video and audio facilities, The Experience Team guides students through a communications process that includes interviewing guests, writing scripts, using a teleprompter, performing on camera, and editing video and audio content into a cohesive, finished product.

forte_j2But why should engineering students learn about digital communication? It all comes back to offering an experience that catalyzes inspiration, says Heistad, a UWM alumna.

“Add a digital literacy aspect and the result is a new relationship with nature,” she says. “That new relationship is a way to break old patterns of thinking and introduce innovation. Yes, peering into a plant can really lead to all that.”

Her vision fits with the one UWM engineering PhD candidate Marissa Jablonski had when, as a new graduate student, she first broached the idea of the Discovery World engineering experience to Heistad.

Recalls Jablonski: “I wanted the students to find out they can create a new kind of engineering profession that can change the world.”

Offering such an early engineering experience is designed to help students remain active and interested in order to finish a rigorous degree program.

forte_j3“It was a hands-on experience that made me excited about what I will eventually get to do as I pursue my degree,” says materials engineering student Nico Medina.

Medina was eligible for the project as a resident of CEAS’ Innovation House, a UWM “Living, Learning Community,” where freshmen who share majors live on the same two floors in a residence hall, take a core of classes, study and, of course, hang out together.

The Discovery World project and Innovation House are two jewels in a suite of programs funded by the college’s Fostering Opportunities for Tomorrow’s Engineers (FORTE) grant.

“Keeping students engaged is important in any major, but with engineering and computer science, it can be a long, hard road, and we want to make sure they start off strong,” said Dee Dee Wallace, retention specialist for CEAS. “It’s important that they get acclimated right away to the increase in work and study time they are going to have as part of these majors.”

That early experience is the goal of the FORTE grant, which is part of the National Science Foundation’s STEM Talent Expansion Program.

“Anything to get their feet wet is valuable,” said Wallace, who confirms that students who have participated in FORTE-funded programs stay on track to graduate with their bachelor’s in engineering.

If the podcasts from the first four years of the program are any indication, participants learned another skill to tap when searching for a job.

“Knowing how to respond when you’re put on the spot is a good skill to have – in your classes, in interviews and in jobs,” says Ross Goessl, a mechanical engineering senior who has served as a mentor in the program.

Newly minted video podcaster Medina agreed. “People don’t think about these sorts of things naturally unless they’re forced to,” he said. “Being able to explain them to yourself and others in technically competent terms means you are going to be in better shape when you’re out of school, and a better applicant in the job market.”