Northcentral research partnership


At UW–Madison’s School of Education, innovation is a way of life. In our classrooms, in our research and even in our spare time, we are creating knowledge and seeking ways to improve and transform lives across fields as diverse as the arts, health and education.

In this issue of “Learning Connections,” we hope to pique your curiosity and deepen your appreciation of the School by spotlighting a sampling of the many ways in which faculty, staff and students are developing creative programs, conducting leading-edge research and advancing innovative tools — all of which can help us better address the many challenges of the modern world.

UW-Madison researchers partnering with colleagues at Northcentral Technical College
to spark STEM interest in rural Wisconsin

When Darren Ackley is traveling around north-central Wisconsin and learning about the needs of the many manufacturing companies in the region, he often hears how these businesses are desperate for skilled employees knowledgeable in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).

“Our district is very large and very rural,” says Ackley, the vice president for learning at Northcentral Technical College, which features a main campus in Wausau, and regional campuses in Antigo, Medford, Merrill, Phillips, Spencer and Wittenberg. “I’ve had numerous conversations about how difficult it is for these companies to find engineers. It’s not easy finding people today who are looking for the ‘rural life.’”

EMMET logoThinking outside the box, Ackley and colleagues from Northcentral Technical College partnered with area school districts and community-based organizations, the Science Museum of Minnesota and a team of researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Madison on an initiative that’s designed to spark interest in STEM learning and help the region “grow its own” STEM workforce.

The project is called Exploring Making through Mobile Emerging Technology (EMMET). It will utilize a mobile trailer with highly technical equipment that can be driven to communities across north-central Wisconsin. The initiative will also train 32 “Maker Mentors” from local high schools and technical college classrooms to staff the trailer and deliver STEM making and computer programming curriculum to rural communities with limited access to this type of opportunity.

The project is backed by a $1.1 million grant from the National Science Foundation, marking the first time Northcentral has been the lead institution on an NSF award. Michael Hladilek, a faculty member with Northcentral’s School of Advanced Technology and Engineering, is the principal investigator on the grant.

“This is the Wisconsin Idea in action,” says UW-Madison’s Erica Halverson, an associate professor with the Department of Curriculum and Instruction who worked closely with the Northcentral team to secure the NSF funding. “We are incredibly excited to be working with so many partners across north-central Wisconsin in an effort to engage with young people and see if we can find new and innovative ways to spark learning and interest in STEM fields.”

Michael Dando pull quoteThe vehicle delivering the STEM training is being dubbed the mobile emerging technologies trailer. It will feature 3-D printers, laptops equipped with 3-D design software, various microcontrollers, a computer controlled laser engraver/cutter, and additional fabrication equipment.

The trailer can accommodate up to 12 participants at a time and brings the technology and instruction to targeted audiences for a range of activities. Local high school partners from four districts will work with Northcentral Technical College to align formal with informal learning activities.

In addition to Halverson, the team of researchers involved with the project from UW–Madison includes: Annalee Good, a researcher at the Wisconsin Center for Education Research (WCER) and co-director of the Wisconsin Evaluation Collaborative; and Michael Dando, a postdoctoral research fellow with WCER, which is housed within the School of Education. This group is leading the research side of the project and will be evaluating the initiative in an effort to understand what people are getting out of their experiences with the mobile emerging technologies trailer.

“This is an outstanding opportunity to break out of the academic bubble and work on building important relationships with educators and communities around Wisconsin,” says Dando, who earned his Ph.D. this past spring from UW-Madison’s School of Education.

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