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STEM Center, engineering program on track to boost UWGB

By Dan Flannery

GREEN BAY – In three months, an exciting building will start making a difference at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, part of Phoenix Innovation Park on the school’s campus.

The Brown County STEM Innovation Center will be an impressive piece of design and construction, with 63,730 square feet available for the Richard J. Resch School of Engineering, the University of Wisconsin-Extension program, Brown County’s Land and Water Conservation program and the Einstein Project, which has driven interest and execution of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) education in the Bay Area since 1990.

The building is owned by Brown County, with construction funding of $15 million from the State of Wisconsin, Brown County, and private funds donated by residents, organizations and businesses focused on growing a progressive partnership with the university, now in its second half-century.

Like many on-campus buildings, on one level, the STEM Innovation Center is just a home to programs, classes and study.

But it plays part of a much bigger vision, in the mind and vision of UWGB Chancellor Gary Miller.

“This is one of many initiatives,” Miller said, “and I guess I would start by saying that the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay now operates in about 16 counties from Sheboygan up to Marinette, and the suite of opportunities that we enjoy here in this part of the state are just enormous. And these are mainly opportunities for higher-education partnerships and with higher-education partnerships with business and government, and with other higher-education institutions.”

To that end, the STEM Innovation Center is no more important than UWGB’s partnerships and collaborations with Northeast Wisconsin Technical College (NWTC) and St. Norbert College, and no more vital than partnering with the rest of the University of Wisconsin system on timely study of freshwater, which affects every area of life in northeast Wisconsin.

Further, the STEM Innovation Center is no more intrinsic to UWGB’s future than the expansion of the school’s social science programs, working to prepare graduates who can and will attack the state’s often conjoined drug abuse and mental health issues.

But that new building is no less important, either. It all works together in Miller’s mind.

At UWGB, in Miller’s fifth year as chancellor, this is the time to make a statement about the university’s potential, its relevance and its position as a destination for students and faculty in Wisconsin.

“We have initiated a lot of partnerships to optimize and grow out our capacity and provide higher education access to everybody in this region and beyond,” Miller said. “I’ve been in this business 30 years, and I have actually never been at a university that had more opportunities at one time than this one.”

The STEM Innovation Center and the Resch School of Engineering will be in the spotlights for the next year or so.

Together, the facility and the engineering program have potential to draw hundreds of new students to campus and provide area employers with a highly trained crop of employees right out of college.

That’s a crucial partnership to maintain, and it was a great partnership to put on display when asking the UW Board of Regents for approval to add the engineering college, said Dr. John Katers, dean of science and technology.

“The business community has been incredibly supportive of this entire effort,” Katers said. “Without them, this would not be possible.

“When we went down to Madison and presented this, a lot of those folks were right there with us in the audience, and at the end of the day, the Board of Regents was basically like ‘This is how these types of proposals need to be presented, as a community effort and public-private partnership.’ They really liked that what we did is kind of a model for how other campuses across the state should be doing things,” Katers said.

In separate interviews, Katers and Miller agreed that the engineering program has potential to add several hundred new students to the Green Bay campus over the next half-decade or so.

“In the state of Wisconsin, during the time it took us to get mechanical engineering and the Resch School of Engineering approved, the number of mechanical engineering jobs available increased dramatically over a two-year period,” Miller said. “So not only is it hard to get to fill current engineering jobs, but they also seem to be actually increasing. There is certainly a demand for the end product. And we are pretty sure we have access to students to come here.”

“The evolution of this, obviously, is that we started with our engineering technology programs,” Katers said. “And so those started back in 2014, and at that point, that was kind of the path of least resistance, where you know the other universities didn’t have as much complaint about us starting those programs because they look different than their engineering programs. That really helped us because we ended up with 150 students in those three programs and that gave us some data that said we really do need engineering here in northeast Wisconsin.”

UW-Platteville has a strong engineering program and has a partnership with UW-Oshkosh in electrical engineering and mechanical engineering.

But Katers said Oshkosh hasn’t produced as many graduates as the region demands.

“If you looked at their program, I think they’re graduating 10 to 12 students a year, maybe, out of the Fox Valley area, but that’s not enough to meet the needs,” he said.

The STEM Innovation Center is scheduled to be ready for classes on Sept. 4, with a projected mid-August “substantial completion,” Katers said.

Groundbreaking for the facility was last Sept. 17.

“Now we’re into the aspects of ordering furniture for the building and then for the engineering program,” Katers said, “and we’ve got about a million and a half dollars worth of equipment that we need to order to start getting ready to set the labs up for fall semester.”

Miller, meanwhile, has his mind on the various areas of growth that could increase UWGB’s regional and national stature, and move it into more frequent consideration as a destination university for students, regardless of their field of study.

Miller said UWGB’s total student population – for its Green Bay, Manitowoc, Marinette and Sheboygan campuses – is around 8,000.

A university in a market of this size should have 10,000-12,000 students, he said, over the next five to eight years.

To build that student growth, UWGB will need more than an engineering college, Miller said.

A four-year nursing program will also boost enrollment and serve the area’s health care organizations.

Neither of those programs have had a chance to take off yet.

“And, I don’t want to talk about them now, but I think we know the areas we’re underperforming in,” he said. “Some of them are more low-hanging fruit than others. We have plans to invest in those areas. So, this is not something we’re guessing at. We actually believe we have the numbers (to reach enrollment goals).”

“There’s absolutely no reason that we shouldn’t become a destination site and known for all of our programs,” Miller said. “We have some very strong humanities programs, too, and they’re growing. But this is a very solid institution with great faculty and we have a strong mission.”

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