Wisconsin universities and colleges: Adapting to serve business

    As Wisconsin’s education policy priorities increasingly focus on direct workforce development, state universities – especially public institutions – have adapted curriculum accordingly.

    “Here at UWSP and several other institutions, there is a new focus on real-world industry awareness,” said Paul Fowler, executive director of the Wisconsin Institute for Sustainable Technology at UW-Stevens Point. “That started with Kevin Reilly, and is being reinforced by Ray Cross. There’s a strong push for change system-wide, and the state’s economy benefits.”

    Kevin Reilly stepped down as president of the UW System in December 2013; Ray Cross was named his successor in January of 2014.

    Prior to Reilly’s departure, the UW Board of Regents announced plans to dedicate $22.5 million over two years to drive educational initiatives and research that supports Wisconsin industries.

    Incentive Grant advances public/private partnerships
    The one-time funds, available through the system’s Economic Development Incentive Grant program, are available in fiscal years 2014 and 2015.

    The program has funded a total of 12 projects based at UW institutions across the state. According to Tim Higgins, UW System regent and chair of the Research, Economic Development and Innovation Committee of the board, the program represents an important strategic initiative to align UW campus collaborations with economic and workforce development. Participating colleges include UW-Stevens Point, UW-Oshkosh, UW-Green Bay, UW-Whitewater, UW-Milwaukee, UW-Parkside, UW-Madison, UW-Eau Claire, UW-La Crosse and the UW-Extension system.

    “We are investing university resources to address key state priorities with grants that will help drive regional economic development and advance traditional and emerging Wisconsin industries,” Higgins said. “Collectively, these efforts will provide direct benefit to businesses and communities statewide and create new and expanded opportunities for our students and faculty.”

    Beyond internships
    Wisconsin’s public and private universities and colleges are working with businesses to adapt curriculum and establish internship and apprenticeship programs to better prepare students for tomorrow’s workforce.

    Concordia University of Wisconsin in Mequon offers students in its marketing, hospitality and sports marketing departments a unique, hands-on opportunity at Kapco Park, a baseball stadium for the Lakeshore Chinooks amateur/college baseball team.

    A small full-time staff and more than 50 students operate the stadium year-round. The goal is to provide development and learning opportunities for students on and off the field.

    At Lakeland College in Sheboygan, accounting students gain real-world experience with actual clients through VITA, a program sponsored by Guaranty Bank and Schenck SC. VITA provides free tax-return services for lower-income citizens.

    In 2014, students handled 371 state returns and 332 federal returns. The program has collected nearly $10 million in tax refunds in its first 10 years.

    In 2009, UW-Milwaukee formed the Advanced Manufacturing and Design Laboratory (AMDL) under the department of Mechanical Engineering in the College of Engineering and Applied Science. The lab is focused on solving industry challenges and providing analysis and research for its business partners in the community.

    “The area of projects we are tackling is pretty broad,” said Ilya Avdeev, director of the lab as well as founder of the UW-Milwaukee Student Startup Challenge and assistant professor in the Department of Engineering.

    Avdeev and his students currently work with GE Healthcare as well as Johnson Controls Inc. and Rexnord, among others.

    Students in the program include both graduate and undergraduate students who learn the value of research and applied knowledge, Avdeev said.

    The lab continues to spawn additional changes to UW-Milwaukee’s advanced manufacturing and applied science curriculum through both the Student Startup Challenge, which has awarded thousands of dollars to student entrepreneurs at UW-Milwaukee, and the undergraduate Product Realization course.

    The course, offered each semester, partners with local companies that pose a product design challenge. Students from the engineering program and design majors from the Peck School of the Arts form teams to work on one semester-long project. With a team budget of $2,500, students take their assigned problem all the way to the building of a physical prototype.

    Similar partnerships with companies in the water industry have formed at UW-Milwaukee’s School of Freshwater Sciences and the UW-Whitewater Institute for Water Business.

    UW-River Falls partners with agricultural companies throughout the state, and curriculum at UW-Madison is closely tied to the state’s bioscience and health care industries.

    UW-Stevens Point has developed curriculum and research to support central Wisconsin’s paper, bioscience and renewable energy industries.

    “Our pledge as a university is to be more responsive to community needs and more relevant to community issues,” said Bernie Patterson, chancellor of UW-Stevens Point.

    Avdeev sees it a little differently. “Companies have started to realize that they cannot do business as usual,” he said. “In order to compete in the global marketplace it’s to their advantage to work with educational institutions.”

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