article Spring 2022

Engineering Summer Program: Growing a Diverse Community of Engineers Starting in High School

The Engineering Summer Program invites high school students to spend their summers in the UW-Madison College of Engineering with the focus of building a community of students with common goals and interests.

Photo provided by: Engineering Summer Program Director, Sara Rothe

It is 5:30 a.m. on July 28, 2018, as 28 bleary-eyed teenagers huddle on the cold stone benches at the very tip of Picnic Point, watching as the sun begins to rise over the Capitol. Six weeks ago, these people were strangers to each other, unsure of what being part of the 2018 Cohort of the Engineering Summer Program would bring. They couldn’t have predicted the community they would build, the friendships that would form, or their future as engineering students at UW-Madison.

The Engineering Summer Program (ESP) is a three-week, full scholarship summer program for rising high school juniors and seniors hosted by the Diversity Affairs Office since 1982. During this time, students take a variety of classes- chemistry, physics, technical communication, and math. Participants in ESP also spend their summer working on a practical engineering project. Outside of classes, the high schoolers attend weekly industry tours around Madison at companies like Epic and GE Healthcare.

Sara Rothe, who has served as the director of ESP since 2018, has several goals for the program. She first strives to bring students into engineering who might not have otherwise considered it as a career option. This is particularly emphasized with students of color, women, and low income and first generation students. Should the place they choose to attend be UW-Madison, all the better. The program also gives students insight into what their first year as engineering students might look like. ESP also provides a variety of further resources. “Besides academics, we also do some other college preparatory things [such as] financial aid and admissions come in- all different things to help prep students for college,” Rothe says. The importance of balance is also emphasized as students take excursions around Madison on the weekend and spend the evenings working on homework together, watching movies, playing ultimate frisbee, and building bonfires. Over these weeks, the people who started off as strangers become friends.

More than anything else, Rothe structures the program to build a community. Even while reviewing applications for the next cohort of students, she looks for students who will fit well together. Throughout the summer, the students foster relationships that will last beyond six weeks. “Students naturally get to know each other and form relationships, so there is that natural community. But we also try to build that through fun activities and classes. But there is also so much that happens behind the scenes, just through that ‘engineering grind,’” Rothe states. 

Photo provided by: Engineering Summer Program Director, Sara Rothe

As seen in the UW-Madison College of Engineering, there is an increased emphasis on collaboration, a core value of ESP. Engineers cannot work in isolation. The program strives to make that first step for high school students- to make collaboration more than a mere convenience. The combination of activities, classes, and other workshops throughout this program can be a life-changing experience. By recruiting students with an interest in STEM through advertising through teachers, alumni, counselors, and social media, students who might never have seriously considered pursuing engineering can no longer imagine a life without it. Others, who would have never considered applying to UW-Madison, may have the school listed as their top choice. 

Photo provided by: Engineering Summer Program Director, Sara Rothe

ESP boasts a high success rate. At least 40% of students who take part as rising seniors return the following year as first-year students in the College of Engineering. ESP alumni also frequent the Diversity Affairs Office in 1410 Engineering Drive, often as part of the Leaders in Engineering Excellence and Diversity Scholars Program and as active members of various organizations striving to increase diversity and community in engineering. At ESP, the community built extends beyond that summer spent in high school and reaches years beyond as students shape their careers.

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