WisBusiness: St. Thomas More engineering program lauded by MIT chapter

By Rebecca Kontowicz

For WisBusiness.com

MILWAUKEE – While many teens can be found in front of a television mastering Guitar Hero on PlayStation after school, parents of students in St. Thomas More High School’s engineering program beam with pride as their enthusiastic students head straight to their computers to work on Engineering Design homework.

Each day, students like 17-year-old Sarah Wittman are seeing their ideas become reality. Wittman, a junior at St. Thomas More is one of the 25 percent of those attending the school who are taking part in the school’s engineering program.

St. Thomas More will be the first school in the state to receive the prestigious MIT Special Award for providing “significant and innovative contributions in important fields in Wisconsin” at the Technology Achievement Awards Banquet to be held from 5:30 to 9 p.m. Friday at the Country Springs Conference Center in Waukesha.

(The keynote speaker will be Yoshiro Kakaoka, a UW-Madison viroology professor. For more information on the banquet, contact Allyn Ziegenhagen at [email protected])

St. Thomas More will be recognized at the gathering for the first certified “Project Lead the Way” engineering program in the greater Milwaukee area, which some have labeled as the finest engineering program in the state. The project is a national effort.

Universities and high schools create partnerships in an attempt to educate young minds with college preparatory mathematics, science and engineering courses, along with top-of-the-line technology, in order to prepare students for college and the engineering field.

Administrators from St. Thomas More were approached by representatives from Marquette University’s College of Engineering and the Milwaukee School of Engineering a little over four years ago to become partners and launch the project, according to St. Thomas More President Robert Pauly.

Wittman exemplifies the excellence that stems from St. Thomas More’s engineering program. This year, she and one other student from the school begin a two year internship with HUSCO International, Inc., a “manufacturer of hydraulic and electrohydraulic controls for off-highway and automotive applications.”

“They’ve assured us we won’t just be filing papers,” Wittman jokes, adding that work with 3D modeling will be among her tasks.

While she will get paid to work through the summer of her junior and senior year, the company will also provide her with two, $2,500 scholarships. It is the first time HUSCO has extended an opportunity of this magnitude to high school students, and the engineering program at St. Thomas More is the reason for it.

Follow Wittman, who boasts of recently “reverse engineering” an entire design system, into instructor Sharon Tomski’s classroom and you’ll find 20 eager minds, exploring a college-level engineering curriculum.

“It pushes the envelope at the high school level,” Pauly said.

So much so, that the two engineers on staff, each with industry experience, one who earned a BS in Mechanical Engineering from Purdue University and the other with a MS in Chemical Engineering from the University of Wisconsin, were required to go through a rigorous, two-week course at MSOE in order to learn how to teach the class.

“It’s almost the same exact curriculum that I took in college, with higher digital electronics,” Tomski said.

Each student, equipped with a leased, highly upgraded IBM ThinkPad laptop with online books and wireless internet capability, sits at a table conjoined with others, lining the classroom so that students and teacher face each other for discussion and group work.

Scattered throughout the room are products of the imagination that were turned into physical and workable objects, machines and tools through coursework.

A chair consisting of only cardboard and duct tape, with the ability to hold up to 200 lbs without collapsing, sits in one corner of the room. In the front, a scaled, Styrofoam mockup of a 2-in-1 keyboard and bass guitar is propped up.

Breadboards – strips of metal and sockets through which circuits are created – show a sequenced and timed student birth date when switched on. Small robots, run by remote control with the ability to sort golf balls and marbles, line the back of the room.

“I like that the classes are mainly hands on. It’s not just a teacher lecturing. We’re given a concept and asked to put it into practice.” Wittman said.

Students are able to do so from freshman year to graduation. In the beginning level course, students are asked to work as a group to scale and create a functional Lego man on the computer program Autodesk Inventor.

By the students’ senior year, they are asked to invent something that will help those with a disability.

“To me it’s exciting because every day is different,” Tomski said. She explains that ideas and creations have ranged from a tool lift to aid a disabled boat designer to a unique form of scissors that those with arthritis will be able to use without suffering through any pain.

Tomski said that a team of engineers will evaluate student work and will meet with students about four times a year. Professionals from Rockwell Automation and Johnson Controls are among those who have worked with the school.

“They’ve created a program where high school students rub elbows with people in top companies in Wisconsin that are making an impact worldwide,” said Allyn Ziegenhagen, who nominated the school and program for the MIT Special Award. Ziegenhagen is a member of the MIT of Wisconsin and its Board of Directors.

HUSCO and MIT aren’t alone in noticing products of the program’s success. Out of 142 nationwide applicants for full scholarship to Marquette University’s School of Engineering last year, two of the four finalists were from St. Thomas More High School.

According to Pauly, Discovery World will also be visiting the within the next few weeks to discuss launching a “unique partnership” with the school revolving around Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM).