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In groups of four and five, they huddled around each other for the Build-off Challenge in the basement of CKTO, a University of Wisconsin-Stout residence hall.
Students were trying to beat the clock while tackling two hands-on engineering problems: First, to see which team could build the tallest structure out of a set of ordinary household supplies, including cups, duct tape, straws, rubber bands and pipe cleaners. Second, to see who could create a structure to raise the cups the highest off the basement floor.
Josh Esterholm, of Prentice, and his team did not win the first round, but they knew what they did wrong. "You definitely need a counterweight. We didn't think of it," he said.
When Ben Stoehr's team also failed to win the first round, members had a simple second-round goal, win or lose. "We just wanted to create a stable design," said Stoehr, of Hammond.
First-place prizes included pizza and a fleck of gold — the tongue-in-cheek Gold Metal — but the rewards weren't the object of the event as much as just showing up and having fun.
The 24 first-year students are part of a university Engineering Learning Community for plastics and manufacturing engineering majors. They take two fall classes together, live on the same floor in a residence hall and gather for special events and programs, usually related to their area of academic interest.
"The learning community brings us together and keeps us involved," said Deepika Ramabadran, of St. Paul.
Since the Learning Communities Program debuted in 2005 at UW-Stout, retention rates and graduation rates among students involved have typically been higher than for students not involved. Last year was the first Engineering Learning Community, and 82 percent of the students are back this fall.
"Overall retention of first-year students is higher among students in learning communities, and graduation rates are promising so far from the early years of the program," said Angela Swenson-Holzinger, academic adviser and Learning Communities coordinator.
The program uses the acronym PACE to describe its advantages: partnerships, active learning, community and engagement.
The next fun challenges for the Engineering Learning Community are making a glow-in-the-dark gelatinous substance, in partnership with the Applied Science Learning Community, and building catapults out of household items and testing them for distance and accuracy.
About 20 percent of first-year students at UW-Stout join a learning community. UW-Stout has 13 such communities, including four based on academics, four for special interests and five that have special requirements.
The program gets students out of the classroom to integrate coursework and ideas and connect with faculty and staff, but for freshmen the chance to make friends quickly is one of the biggest advantages.
"It gives them a good sense of camaraderie. They have a group of 24 friends to start off their college career with. It seems to work," said Matthew Ray, an assistant professor of chemistry who has the group in a class and who was the Build-off Challenge judge.
Rajiv Asthana, a professor in the technology department, is the other faculty adviser for the Engineering Learning Community. He teaches the group in a materials engineering class.
Others working with the group are Henry Craft, residence hall director; Dylan Bacon, residence hall academic resource coordinator; Celene Frey, first-year adviser; and Aaron Moren, peer mentor.
Students can enroll in a learning community when they enroll at UW-Stout. For more information, go to the website.