Messmer students experience STEM immersion on campus

When Messmer High School students toured UWM’s Connected Systems Institute during STEM Day March 30, they were fascinated by the mini factory lines used to research manufacturing automation using data science and robotics.

“Most of the students are in my Introduction to Engineering Design class,” said Justin Spaeth, Messmer High School STEM coordinator. “And this was the first college visit for my freshmen. So, what they saw on the tour last week is something I am hearing a lot about in school today.”

The exposure to STEM fields – science, technology, engineering and math – is particularly important because most of Messmer’s enrollment consists largely of students of color, with 85.4% of enrolled students in 2020-21 identifying as Black. As of 2021, the U.S. STEM workforce was only 9% African American, according to the Pew Research Center. The percentage of Black engineers is even lower, less than 4%.

High school students visit UWM for STEM Day

“Increasing diversity in STEM fields and exposing young scholars to what it takes to succeed academically as a STEM major was really the goal of STEM Day,” said Anique Ruiz, STEM-Inspire program manager at UWM. Ruiz joined forces with Victoria Robison of the Manfred Olson Planetarium and Andrea Giachino and Hope Williams in the Office of Undergraduate Admissions to plan STEM Day.

More than 60 Messmer freshman and sophomore students toured other research labs in the KIRC building, led by Mark Mentele, admissions and recruitment coordinator at Zilber School of Public Health.

Students also attended a show at the planetarium led by presenter Kieran Arnold and learned about resources available to STEM students at UWM from Payton Beverly, admissions advisor, including those that can help them fund their college degrees.

“[I] really enjoyed the planetarium,” one student said after the event. Another student commented, “I liked that we got to see the labs, especially the robotics lab.”

Improving retention, graduation rates

The STEM-Inspire program works to improve the retention and graduation rates of underrepresented minority STEM undergraduate students enrolled at UWM.

The various components of the program include year-round support services, co-curricular activities, career development events, research/internship opportunities and meaningful relationships with faculty and peer mentors.

The STEM-Inspire Program (also known as “WiscAMP”) at UWM is funded by the National Science Foundation’s Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation; the UWM Division of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion; and the American Family Insurance Dream Fund.

The STEM Day outreach to Messmer continues the program’s focus on retention and outreach, Ruiz said. Events like STEM Day not only expose students to UWM research, but they also spark interest.

“High school students may not have ever been to a planetarium before – or even know that there’s one here,” Ruiz said.

A way to give back

While STEM fields can be lucrative, that is not the main reason why students might want to pursue these fields, Ruiz said.

“It’s not just about money. There’s something in these fields that attracts students because of the potential to help others,” she said. “Through these professions students see that they can give back to their communities.”

The idea for UWM’s strategic alliance with Messmer materialized after Ruiz met UWM alumna Erica Zdroik, development director at Messmer Schools, at a volunteer reception sponsored by the UWM Alumni Association. The two envisioned WiscAMP students and faculty mentors visiting the high school and talking with students about opportunities in STEM.

Shortly after, Ruiz began working with Spaeth and Lateff Alston, Messmer Schools’ communications and partnerships director, to plan a panel discussion that would cater to their students’ curiosity about college in general, and to interest in STEM.

That happened on March 16, with help from current WiscAMP scholars Dejiah Julien, Victor Chavez, engineering alum Joshua Sharkey and associate professor of mathematical sciences Pamela Harris. But the organizers decided to take it a step further and bring the high schoolers to UWM for an all-day immersion experience in STEM.

‘Really like UWM’

Some of the speakers included Chia Youyee Vang, vice chancellor for diversity, equity and inclusion and WiscAMP principal investigator; Marc Young, director of undergraduate admissions; Alberto Maldonado, director of the Roberto Hernandez Center; and Tiera Trammell, program manager at the Lubar Entrepreneurship Center.

After the program ended, one of the students emailed Ruiz about returning to UWM to explore robotics and to engage in high school programs for girls in STEM, like the EnQuest program. She ended the email by sharing her goals for college: “I really like UWM and am considering it as one of my college choices.”

The program was successful, Ruiz said, because of the close collaboration and synergy between all the stakeholders involved. “It truly takes a village to make an event like STEM Day possible,” she said, “and with invaluable support from our campus community and Messmer school leadership, we will continue building the infrastructure for the next generation of STEM leaders to thrive.”

Young agreed: “It’s collaborative efforts like today that will move us forward tremendously.”

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