An old warehouse. An elementary school. A city park. A soccer field. These are some of the locations where students in the University Scholars Honors Program find themselves as they explore the power of place through project-based learning.

“The relationships between the human, physical, historical, cultural and technological factors affect people, the natural world and the built environment,” said Dr. Michael Carriere, director of the honors program and professor in the Humanities, Social Science and Communication Department. “Ultimately I want each student to answer this vital question: what makes particular spaces healthy, equitable and sustainable?”

The University Scholars Honors Program debuted in the fall of 2010 with specialized academic courses or “honors” sections offered in several departments. Twenty-six students were enrolled. A few years later under Carriere’s leadership it underwent a programmatic shift.

“I have tried to instill a more cohesive vision that allows students to see the context of the decisions they will make as professionals,” Carriere said. “The honors program offers ‘real-world’ projects that allow young engineers to develop their respective skill sets while practicing a pedagogy based on collaboration, interdisciplinary and inter-institutional partnerships.”

MSOE Servant-Leadership—a program that stresses hands-on, experiential learning and community engagement—was a natural partner in this initiative.

“Servant-leadership at MSOE is the conduit between the community partners we serve, the corporate partners who serve as industry mentors to our students, and our faculty who connect these projects to specific learning outcomes,” said DeAnna Leitzke ’98, ’08 P.E., chair of servant-leadership. “University Scholars is a great example of how project-based service learning can be successfully integrated into our curriculum.”

Freshman Shahbaz Mogal, who is studying software engineering, is a part of an honors team that’s partnering with Milwaukee-area Browning Elementary School, located in the Silver Spring Neighborhood Center (pictured at left). They are building a solar food hydrator and aquaponics facility and creating an accompanying academic curriculum around the technology.

The dehydrator will dry and preserve fruit that would otherwise fall from trees and rot on the ground, while the proposed aquaponics system will cultivate fish and plants to sustain and promote the growth of either other.

“The common thread that runs through our project is the idea of turning waste into opportunity,” Mogal said. “Subsequently, we will inculcate elementary students with the love for STEM-related fields and entrepreneurship.”

Another project is taking place at the MacCanon Brown Homeless Sanctuary—a five-story warehouse building in Milwaukee’s inner city that is being converted into a multi-resource center for homeless and at-risk individuals. The MacCanon Brown project involves two teams of honors students. Freshman Nick Brnot, electrical engineering major, is the project lead.

“An aquaponics team is designing an indoor, food producing system and the outdoor space team is designing an outdoor gathering space and rooftop hydroponics garden,” Brnot said. Ideally, the sanctuary would produce food for its meal program mostly in-house. “The ability to work on real-world projects and have a real impact on the Milwaukee community is one of the most enjoyable parts of the University Scholars program.”

But there are other perks as well. The University Scholars reside in a designated living and learning community offered in MSOE’s Grohmann Tower, an apartment-style housing option only available to upperclassmen. “Being in the honors program comes with a whole bundle of privileges,” said Mogal.

The program also serves as a launch pad for other opportunities. “It pushed me to participate in The Commons—an entrepreneurial skills accelerator for college students in southeast Wisconsin—which has been life changing,” said Sabrina Stangler, a sophomore software engineering student. “It opened me up not only to participate in, but also lead, a team of six, which proved extremely valuable.”

“I’ve been able to experience the benefits and pitfalls of a leadership position very early in my college career,” said Brnot.

Currently offered as a two-year program with 67 students, Carriere would like to see the honors program continue to grow. “The next step is to make it a three-year program, which would involve all honors students participating in an undergraduate research experience during their junior year. The ultimate goal is to make it a four-year program, with honors-specific senior design projects serving as the capstone for the program.”