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UW Summer Outreach Program Prepares Students for College and Career

July 20, 2016
young woman in lab coat putting something in a beaker in a lab
Briley James, of Wheatland, conducts research in a UW laboratory as part of the annual Engineering Summer Program for high school students. (UW Photo)

Briley James wants a career in which she can help people, and that is why she aims to become an engineer.

James was among 31 incoming high school seniors learning firsthand what it takes to become an engineer at the annual Engineering Summer Program (ESP) at the University of Wyoming. Hosted by the College of Engineering and Applied Science (CEAS), the weeklong program takes place each June on the UW campus.

The students, selected through a competitive process, participated in laboratory activities and field trips in a variety of engineering disciplines -- and worked with faculty members and graduate students from the college. The program has existed since 1988 and has served thousands of aspiring engineers and scientists.

Despite being just shy of her senior year, the 17-year-old James already knows she wants to pursue a rewarding career in which she can directly affect the well-being of her community. The Wheatland native was particularly interested in finding out more about bioengineering, a segment that combines technology to assist the human body. She and three other students spent an afternoon constructing polymer-hydrogel structures that could be used in medical technology.

“I’m loving it. I thought I knew what I wanted to do, and coming here and doing all these activities is really reinforcing that fact,” James says. “This is what I want to do and what I want to pursue as a career. I like helping people. My mom is a therapist, so I’ve grown up with a sense for helping people. The biomedical side is a way to combine the two. I see that as a perfect goal for me.”

Planning for the future is not an uncommon trait of ESP participants. Rob Streeter, an engineer with Ryan Electronics in Saratoga, was involved with ESP as a high school student in 2005. He later served as a teaching assistant for six summers.

“I always felt that ESP was one of the main driving forces that actually got me to go into engineering and go to UW,” Streeter says. “As a counselor, it was really neat to interact with students. It attracts high-caliber kids, and to see where they were going and encourage them to have a good experience like I did was rewarding.”

Streeter is just one of the success stories to come from ESP. Countless participants have moved on to study engineering in college and become professional engineers in many walks of life. He points to a particular moment in his ESP experience as something that kept him on track.

“I participated in UW’s High School Institute the summer before, so when I got to ESP, I ended up in one of the same classes with a friend,” he says. “We were in (CEAS Associate Dean) Steve Barrett’s class about electronics and computers. He pulled us aside in the first class and said, ‘I know you guys have done this before. I have a project the two of you can do.’ We spent the entire class doing that project. That was a really neat experience to be able to build a 24-hour watch from scratch.”

The classes at ESP are designed to give students a real experience in the engineering process, from the conceptual all the way through design and manufacturing.

“I think it’s neat how the classes are structured -- it’s hands-on and project-based, but at the same time informal,” Streeter says. “You got to see the best parts of engineering without having to fail an exam. As a high schooler, that was very motivating.”

Another benefit of the program is that UW offers opportunities for research that high schools simply cannot due to lack of facilities or personnel. 

“When I got to high school, I had good math and science teachers, which improved my grasp, and I really liked dealing with the subjects,” James says. “We learned about some of these things in high school, but we just don’t have the equipment to do all the tests and methods.”

Using and learning about advanced lab equipment affords students legitimate hands-on experience, something Streeter remembers vividly. “It puts a picture in your head and teaches you how to be inventive with it,” Streeter adds. “That line of thinking is quite useful in the professional fields of engineering.”

Streeter uses creativity every day in his career as a radio communications specialist. He wants to ensure the pipeline of professionals stays strong.

“Being involved as a counselor, it emphasizes how important the next generation of engineering students is,” he says. “Between ESP and graduate teaching, I had a lot of interaction with high school students. If I got one in 10 to enroll in engineering, I felt like I had done a good thing.”

One day, James may join Streeter in the career field. She plans to apply to UW, among other schools, but left the program with a sense of purpose.

“I wanted to come because I like Laramie and UW,” James says. “I was looking for those opportunities to come back. This was right up my alley with biomedical engineering. This seemed like a great way to get into that and really find out what the career field means.”

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