It’s the very first phrase you hear as a wide-eyed freshman, blending into the masses, at the year-beginning convocation speech given by UW-Madison’s chancellor: The Wisconsin Idea. The Wisconsin Idea, the main philosophy motivating the values and goals of a UW-Madison education, is a commitment to take education beyond the classroom to influence and improve lives both inside and outside of the university complex. To see The Wisconsin Idea at work, one must look no further than UW-Madison’s School of Engineering.
UW-Madison’s School of Engineering is one of the most prestigious engineering schools in the country. In 2011 the “US News & World Report” ranked UW-Madison’s School of Engineering 13th overall, with its eight degree granting programs ranging from rankings of 2nd to 19th. With 3,200 undergraduate students currently enrolled in the school, one might think that gaining hands-on experience and receiving one-on-one attention would be difficult to come by, but by the time of graduation over 75 percent of engineering students have held a co-op, internship or campus research position.
With 44 research centers and 15 consortia, which work directly with government and industry to solve key engineering challenges, the prospect of getting involved in undergraduate research is favorable, and even better, rewarding. The brilliant minds working in UW-Madison’s research labs are working to advance healthcare, move closer towards energy independence and environmental sustainability, improve security and transportation infrastructure, and advance manufacturing. There are hundreds of students working every day in these research labs, implementing The Wisconsin Idea to improve the lives of citizens both locally and globally, and here are two of their stories: meet Erin Berns. Erin, originally from Green Bay Wisconsin, is a fourth year student majoring in Geology and Geological Engineering. Always strong in math and science related subjects, Erin decided to study engineering because she wanted to use her talents to influence and design products that will be more helpful and sustainable.
Erin is currently working in the Geo-Environmental lab under Professor Craig Benson testing geo-synthetic clay liners, or in simpler terms, clay between two pieces of fabric. Geo-synthetic clay liners are used in landfills or retention ponds to keep fluids from moving out of the system and into the surrounding soils. CETCO, a global company that specializes in environmental and construction technologies, is giving the Geo-Environmental lab samples to be tested and Erin’s main job is to see how the different types of liners function.
When asked what was most rewarding about working in a research lab, Erin responded saying she was grateful to gain experience in the field of research and that she now has an understanding of the processes involved in formulating the scope of research and all the step-by-step processes needed to find the data and trends of a research project. She thinks that gaining experience with the research process will be especially valuable for graduate school in the future, and would tell any undergraduate entering the College of Engineering to take advantage of the research labs on campus. Erin says, “There’s a lot of opportunity to do research and all you really have to do is ask.”
Next meet Ali Ahsan, an Industrial Engineering student in his final year of undergraduate coursework. Ali, who is originally from Lahore, Pakistan, is an active student on the UW-Madison campus and in the College of Engineering. He has worked as an intern for UW-Madison’s Facility and Planning Management Department, is a member of the Wisconsin Consulting Club, Vice President of the Institute of Industrial Engineering and he also finds time to be the only undergraduate student working in the Quick Response Manufacturing (QRM) Center led by Professor Krishnamurthy.
The QRM Center, founded in 1993, works collaboratively with manufacturing companies to improve company efficiencies to cut lead times, which directly results in an increase of profitability. The QRM Center has worked with over 200 companies and has an impressive success rate of over 90 percent. Ali began working for the QRM Center in May 2012, and has recently completed a project in collaboration with Trystar, a company that specializes in custom cables and power solutions. In 2015, Fairbault, Minnesota-based Trystar is moving to a new facility, so Ali’s main focus was to develop a facility layout plan for the manufacturing of the company’s distribution panels and power accessories, which is their high mix, low volume business segment. To complete this project, Ali had to make several visits to the manufacturing floor of the company in order to conceptualize and create a plan which he presented to the company through the use of simulation software.
Ali, who enthusiastically spoke about his work in the QRM Center, said that one of the most challenging aspects of his work comes in the beginning of a project when he must establish his and the QRM Center’s credibility and commitment to the project. “It’s initially a lot of work,” he stated, “You need to go in and understand the business itself; it beings with a lot of data crunching.” Ali’s work with Trystar is only his latest within the QRM Center, and through several semesters and summers of hard work with various companies, Ali is truly an example of the Wisconsin Idea at work.