Building support that lasts a lifetime
Although he spent his career traveling all over the world, Kevin Bell says that in some ways, a summer in 1980 spent in Madison felt particularly lonely and foreign—yet overwhelmingly exciting.
That summer, on the offhand recommendation of a Washington, D.C., neighbor who had attended the University of Wisconsin Law School, Bell arrived in Madison for the Engineering Summer Program, or ESP, a six-week pre-college program that focused on science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education. “Everything was new. For a lot of kids it’s the first time away from home,” says Bell. “You met people and live with people that you never would have.”
Like most of the high school juniors and seniors who have participated in ESP on the UW-Madison College of Engineering campus throughout the four decades of its existence, Bell wasn’t sure of exactly what to expect. But of everything he experienced—rigorous coursework, hands-on field trips to factories and labs, the head start on what it takes to “make it” in college—Bell recalls one overwhelming memory of his time that summer. “It was the best time of my life.”
Habits of highly effective student engineers
Admitting approximately 25 students each summer, ESP draws some of the brightest students who will be high school juniors and seniors in the country, affording them a blend of intense college-level coursework, hands-on engineering challenges, and advising from staff of the engineering Diversity Affairs Office to orient students to the demands that college will place on a student interested in engineering. “It’s about introducing engineering to people who might not understand what it’s about,” says Manuela Romero, assistant dean for student diversity and academic services. “Particularly, bringing it to those who were and continue to be underrepresented: ethnic minorities and women.”
The program’s immediate goal is to prime the math, science and communication skills that students will need to succeed in college. More than that, however, ESP organizers hope students gain clearer insight into what engineering is and what it will take to excel at it. “This really is a life-changing experience for students,” says Molly Reinhard, former director of ESP. “They have the grades and the drive, but they leave the program with the tools and network to really succeed.”
During ESP, participants learn exactly the level of work expected of them if they pursue an engineering degree. Deonte Wilson, a 2008 ESP alumnus who now is an industrial and systems engineering senior, says the moment he returned home after his summer in the program, he rethought the courses he would be taking his last year of high school at Bradley Technical High School in Milwaukee. “I realized how important courses like physics would be for my future,” says Wilson. “I knew I really needed to up the ante and push myself so I would be better prepared once I came to the university.”
The ESP core curriculum offers even these exceptionally bright students a sizable challenge, and they quickly realize that no one will be handing out easy answers; it’s up to them to seek out the help they need, whether that comes from instructors, advisors, or each other. “I remember struggling a lot in ESP, but what I remember most—the positive aspect of struggling—is that you had someone with you. Someone supporting you,” says Hillary Durazo, a 2009 ESP alumna.
Jay Flores, a 2006 ESP alumnus, agrees. “ESP taught me the importance of a network—not only to have a network, but to have one that strives to set a level of excellence that you haven’t been exposed to previously,” he says.
Living together in the dormitories on the UW-Madison campus, struggling through tough coursework, learning about campus resources —it’s all part and parcel of the UW-Madison freshman experience. However, ESP students get that experience a year or more early.
As a result, even before enrolling in college, ESP students have an idea of what it takes to succeed in a university setting, whether on the UW-Madison campus or anywhere else in the country. In addition, the program sets an early pace of excellence that students strive toward for the rest of their lives. “ESP exposed me more to the level of work that I’d need to produce to realize my dreams,” says Bell.
A wealth of experiences
ESP is particularly unique because it maintains a deep level of involvement from partners that include healthcare research firms Abbott Labs and GE Healthcare, power and control systems manufacturer Rockwell Automation, and product design firm Design Concepts. In addition to helping to underwrite the $138,000 annual cost of the program so that students can attend for free, industry partners invite ESP students into their facilities for a firsthand look at what careers in engineering actually look like. It’s an experience that leaves a lasting impression on students. “Those weekly industrial visits were really key to me wanting to explore engineering as a major once I got to college,” says Lynn Watkins-Asiyanbi, a 1991 ESP alumna who now is assistant general counsel for U.S. Foods. “We were able to sit down and have great discussions with people working at these companies.”
Some students, like Watkins-Asiyanbi and Wilson, simply appreciated seeing the academic side of engineering applied in a real-world context. “Going into the lab and seeing how engineers work, seeing the process and how actual companies looked, it was just so valuable seeing that for the first time,” says Wilson.
Others, like 2009 ESP alumnus and chemical and biological engineering junior Korey Jasper, turned connections made on those visits into internships and jobs. “The first time I ever went to Rockwell and saw what was going on there was on an industry tour for ESP,” he says. “They took us to the advanced technology lab where all the new and innovative stuff was being done. It was amazing. I remember thinking ‘I wouldn’t mind working here.’”
It’s a win-win: Companies get an early look at the engineers they may be hiring someday, and students get a peek at the lives they could have, should they pursue a career in engineering. For Jasper, meeting real engineers was the moment that made his educational path click into place. “Going through this program and being able to talk to all these engineers who are in all these different facets of engineering, seeing what they do on a daily basis and hearing what they do, I was able to see whether I actually wanted to do this and see what seemed the most interesting,” he says.
Providing for the future
The program isn’t all about personal benefit. In fact, ESP alumni go out of their way to give back to the program that shaped them, becoming a resource for future ESP students in a multitude of ways. Many return as counselors, acting as both tutor and housefellow to new ESP students, and often developing a deeper appreciation for the program in the process.
“I thought that our group’s experience was unique, but after getting to watch it several times, I learned that everyone creates those amazing relationships,” says Rebecca Shelton, a 2007 ESP alumna and repeat counselor for the program. “This program draws some really amazing students—not just academically, but people with great personalities and experiences that contribute so much to the group.”
As they progress through life, ESP alumni gain a profound sense of gratitude for the programs that helped launch their successes. Most become huge boosters of early STEM education themselves. “I think it’s extremely important to have these STEM programs, not just at the college level but pushing it all the way down to grammar school,” says Watkins-Asiyanbi. “Even if they decide not to get into a STEM-related career, I think the fundamentals can be applicable to any field you go into.”
Flores now works for Rockwell Automation after graduating from UW-Madison as one of the company’s first Rockwell Automation Scholars. Recognizing the impact connections to industry and science had on his life, he is bullish on the importance of early science education for students. “If they want to do something cool like design a roller coaster or go into space—and most of them say yes—I stress that they’re going to have to keep up with the math and keep up with the science,” says Flores. “You don’t have to be an expert, but you need to keep up with the technical skills needed to do amazing things like that.”
The support students give each other during the six-week program extends into college and beyond, to ESP alumni of all years. “We reach out and help the class that comes after us,” says Flores. “It was awesome to think that six years ago, I was in their seat, and now I can talk to them about my experiences and why I chose Rockwell, and give them some advice. It’s a great family, ESP.”
Bell is fortunate to count his ESP family and his actual family as one and the same—both of his brothers and even a few cousins also made the summer trip to Madison. And in summer 2012, Bell sent his daughter Chloe to the College of Engineering campus as well. “The one thing I’ve always tried to impress upon her and her brother is that a degree in engineering can do a lot for you,” says Bell. “It teaches you to analyze the situation. It’s training I hope my kids get, because it trains you to think a certain way, to approach things logically.”
As for wisdom for future ESP students, Bell offers the same advice he gives his own kids: Any goal you have is possible, so long as you apply a strong work ethic and the proper tools. “The biggest lesson is to stick with it. Everything might not work out like you plan, but if you have a goal in mind, you might have to keep at it.”