Opportunities abound at Brown County STEM Innovation Center
By Lee Reinsch
GREEN BAY – The sunlight that beams through the tall windows of the new Brown County STEM Innovation Center could be viewed as a metaphor for the enlightenment within.
Inside, the modern, steel-and-glass structure is bright and bold, with apple green walls and geometric designs.
But it isn’t just for science, technology, engineering and math students.
It’s for the community, which is why Brown County is in its name.
Yes, the Brown County STEM Innovation Center houses the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay’s College of Science, Engineering, and Technology (CSET).
And yes, it’s home to the university’s first mechanical engineering program, which recently christened $1.5 million in equipment installed just in time for the spring semester.
And true, the STEM Innovation Center is on UWGB’s campus.
But the university doesn’t own it, and it’s not restricted to college staff and students.
“Brown County owns the building,” said John Katers, dean of UWGB’s College of Science, Engineering, and Technology. “We’re just renters.”
CSET and three other tenants are the Einstein Project science program for kids, the Brown County Land and Water Conservation Department and Extension-Brown County, formerly known as the University of Wisconsin Extension.
It’s an unusual arrangement, Katers said.
But he said it works and even proved helpful in expediting the project.
“The way we were able to get this building done so quickly is that the land was basically leased to the county, the county put up the building, owns the building, operates the building,” he said. “We (the tenants) write a check every month.”
The tenants interact, pooling their strengths, building the network of each, and making a better whole.
“It creates all kinds of synergies,” Katers said.
Brown County Land and Water Conservation often works on issues related to clean water and runoff.
It puts on programming that complements offerings by Extension Brown County.
Land and Water hires students to help on projects, and it offers students a visible application of what they’ve learned.
Extension Brown County, the umbrella organization of 4-H, recently asked Katers about getting mechanical engineering students to talk to a 4-H group of bow hunters about the mechanicals involved in building a bow.
That introduces 4-H members to STEM students and gives STEM students a chance to communicate their knowledge.
“One of those young people could decide they’d like to go into mechanical engineering or a STEM field just because they’ve learned from and interacted with one of our students who’s also an active outdoorsman.”
Adjacent to the Einstein Project is a maker space – a well-equipped workshop where members of the public can use an array of power tools and equipment the average person doesn’t have lying around the house.
Last fall, a group of engineering students made compostable rockets filled with grass seed at the maker space.
People can pay by the month or by the year.
“It’s like a gym membership,” said Chad Janowski, executive director of the Einstein Project.
It’s about $40 a month, with a one-year membership saving about $5 per month, he said.
In open houses, labs in the STEM Innovation Center showed off some of the recently arrived $1.5 million in new equipment.
Those machines include the Pelton turbine, a small hydroelectric turbine which demonstrates how water movement can create energy, the machine that can quantify how hard something is, as well as its mechanical traits, and the Gunt HM 150.13, which can measure rates of flow.
Not to be forgotten is the Stratasys 3D printer, a little manufacturing plant unto itself, taking raw materials such as plastic and building them layer by layer into tangible, 3D objects.
Katers said the students don’t perceive a difference between the STEM Innovation Center and the rest of the campus.
“It fits right in with other buildings; it’s open 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. just like many other buildings on campus,” he said.
Multiple Wi-Fi networks and keycard systems have to be used because of the different partners using the building.
But beyond that, it’s not noticeably different, Katers said.
A new degree offering means students interested in mechanical engineering careers don’t have to leave the area.
Those who start at NWTC can also complete their four-year degree at UWGB, spending less in the process.
“We have strong articulation agreements with NWTC,” Katers said. “Most of the credits (in the same field of study) should transfer.”
The mechanical engineering program is going to continue to grow, said Katers, because 55 students were expected to enroll in it and 100 in reality did.
“We’re not sure what the cap will be,” he said.
The just-under 64,000-square-foot, $15 million center was designed with expansion in mind.
“We can essentially push the building back on this northeast corner,” Katers said. “We can expand the size of the machine shop. We can also add some additional labs on the second floor.”
The long-term plan is for that area of the campus to become Phoenix Innovation Park, he said.
“There are 63 acres of additional land off to the west, and we’re really hoping there’s going to be other businesses that want to relocate to the park,” Katers said. “Folks that, what I would say, would be aspirational partners for the university, would want to do research with our faculty, would want to work with our students, hire our students, kind of grow with the campus. There are a lot of other universities that have research parks.”