A few hundred yards from the UW-Madison College of Engineering’s core campus is a fresh example of why engineering is more than classrooms and theory: It’s a hands-on discipline for turning ideas into prototypes and products that help people.

Opened in September, the Grainger Engineering Design Innovation Laboratory is a “makerspace” open to inventors, designers, builders and old-fashioned tinkerers, primarily within the College of Engineering, but also to students and faculty elsewhere on campus.

Occupying 12,000 square feet in Wendt Commons, the space comes equipped with 3-D printers, laser cutters, machine tools, virtual and augmented reality software, microscopes, soldering irons, a paint shop and more tools to put physical form to ideas.

The makerspace also represents the changing face of higher education — and why Wisconsin has advantages worthy of nurturing through public and private support.

The UW-Madison College of Engineering leveraged a gift from the Grainger Foundation to outfit the makerspace, which is already producing innovative devices such as a haptic stethoscope, an electronic page turner and new ways to help visually impaired people find their way around a building.

Meanwhile, the college is busting at the seams when it comes to accepting students who want to be there and meeting industry demand for its graduates.

There are roughly 4,500 undergraduate students in UW-Madison’s engineering sequence today. About 6,600 applied last year, including many qualified applicants from outside Wisconsin who could add to the state’s talent base.

The main barrier to taking more is a lack of faculty to educate more students without diminishing the quality of the experience for all. Private gifts help, but the core funding for faculty hires comes from state government support and student tuition. Neither source has grown much for years.

As a result, the college has seen some peer rankings slip, even though none of its core departments — biomedical, chemical, civil and environmental, electrical, engineering physics, industrial, materials science and mechanical — ranks below 24th nationally. Some are within the top 10.

The issue is similar in other colleges and universities, even as those institutions are being asked to produce more graduates to meet the demand for skilled workers in Wisconsin.

One of the reasons Foxconn Technology Group settled on Wisconsin as the site for its North American production facility is the quality of its education programs and partnerships, from Gateway Technical College, UW-Milwaukee and Marquette University in southeastern Wisconsin to UW-Madison and Madison Area Technical College in south-central Wisconsin and well beyond. Even with the signed contract pending, members of Foxconn’s team have been combing the state to establish relationships with schools and other sources of talent.

The same search for talent is true with existing Wisconsin companies and others hoping to expand in Wisconsin. With more baby boomers retiring, companies often look to higher education — which produces about 75,000 graduates per year in Wisconsin — to help them attract and retain workers.

At a recent meeting of the Wisconsin Technology Council board of directors, two researchers independently noted the mismatch between the state’s population growth and the much slower growth in supply of workers. That’s largely driven by the aging of the workforce, although a failure to attract and keep enough younger workers is also a problem.

Investing in proven sources of talent will help provide a solution. When the UW-Madison College of Engineering turns away qualified students by the hundreds, the state of Wisconsin is missing a chance to attract and keep some of the best and brightest. Higher education is evolving to become more responsive, but it can’t do so by itself.

Tom Still is the president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. Email: tstill@wisconsintechnologycouncil.com.

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