New program aims to inspire MPS students in STEM fields and help community

Visions of a vegetable harvest sprouted in Larry Keaton’s head as he marveled at the additions to his neighborhood’s community garden.

Two new sturdy 10-by-15 foot wood structures with folding benches offered a cool place for gardeners to take a break and share lunch with friends. Large rain barrels stored rainwater. Solar panels mounted atop the roof of one structure provided a renewable source to power water pumps.

They were constructed by Milwaukee Public Schools students under the guidance of teachers and mentors from around the city taking part in the new NAF Future Ready Scholars program led by UWM faculty members and staff.

The goal: to give the high school students hands-on experience in a STEM-related activity that could spark interest in a career. In this case, the end result provided inspiration for Keaton, who lives in a senior living community across the street from the garden in Milwaukee’s Metcalfe Park neighborhood.

“We’ll be planting several things at one time, most likely tomatoes, squash and cauliflower,” Keaton said after thanking students during a completion ceremony on a sunny afternoon in July.

“I’m going to buy the seeds,” Keaton said. “We’re just going to have a planting day out here.”

Focusing on STEM fields

NAF is a national network of education, business and community leaders dedicated to making sure that high school students are prepared for college. It was formerly known as National Academy Foundation before being renamed in 2015.

NAF’s Future Ready Scholars program focuses on learning opportunities in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math.

NAF and UWM connected a year ago through a common partner: Milwaukee Public Schools. NAF works with school districts across the country, including MPS. UWM works with MPS on a variety of educational programs, including the M³ partnership.

“The exciting part was there was a blueprint to learn from, and we took the opportunity to do so,” said Keisha Taylor, NAF’s senior director of alumni and postsecondary engagement.

The Future Ready program started in 2019 at the University of California, Berkeley, with UWM just the fourth university in the country to be selected as a site. The other locations are University of Michigan and North Carolina State.For NAF, the Milwaukee program was also a chance to introduce a Future Ready Scholars offering that included an architecture focus for the first time.

Expanding outreach to high school students

Mo Zell, interim dean of UWM’s School of Architecture and Urban Planning, said she was enthusiastic about the program after hearing about it for the first time a year ago because it offered another avenue to expand outreach to high school students.

One group of MPS students focused on design and architecture of the structures. A second group focused on the solar panels, with the College of Engineering and Applied Science serving as a co-lead with Architecture and Urban Planning. Students stayed in UWM residence halls to get a taste of college life.

“To have a group of kids who can come back anytime they want and stay engaged with UWM –and we can go visit their classrooms so easily – I think can be really beneficial” for the high school students, said Chris Beimborn, a STEM outreach specialist at the College of Engineering.

“Plus, they can stay friends with the kids they met from other schools,” she added. “It can be important to have that social support with those from different schools who share similar interests.”

‘OK, this is going to work’

The architecture program continued another three weeks over the summer as students worked to build the structures. A separate group of MPS high school students taking part in the College of Engineering’s summer camp for girls later joined the project to help prepare the solar panels.

“In the beginning, I was a little bit skeptical in seeing that space that we had and the dimensions,” said Jahsiah Acosta, a senior at Rufus King High School. “But once we started to get into it and figuring out the rest of the process, I started to enjoy it more and thought, ‘OK, this is going to work.’”

Acosta, who is interested in going into architecture or interior design after college, helped construct the roofs on the structures. He said the program gave him confidence that he could see a complicated project through from start to finish.

Community engagement important to UWM

UWM also partnered with instructors from MATC to help guide the 27 MPS students through the Future Ready Scholars program, building on close ties that all three institutions have forged through M3. Staff from nonprofit organizations Journey House and All Hands Boatworks also helped mentor students.

“Community engagement is foundational to UWM and foundational to being an architecture student in this day and age,” Zell said. “You can’t practice without thinking about engaging with the community.”

Sophia West, a senior at Ronald Reagan High School, helped put together the wooden benches, which she said were a bit complicated because they had to be built so that they could be folded away to create more space if needed. The program fit her interest in building, design and working with tools.

“I would love to pursue architecture in the future,” West said, “and it was a lot of fun to get into the community and help.”

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