Students help design new water tower as part of STEM education initiative

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Two Milwaukee County (Wis.) Zoo steam locomotives double-headed and moving at speed in this undated photo.
Coalition for Sustainable Rail
A concept drawing by STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) students for a new water tower at the Milwaukee County (Wis.) Zoo.
Coalition for Sustainable Rail
MILWAUKEE — High school students are helping design a new water tower for the Milwaukee County (Wis.) Zoo’s 15-inch gauge railroad as part of a unique partnership between schools and a number of organizations to bolster STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) education.

The program is being spearheaded by Learn Deep, a local initiative that aims to prepare students for the 21st Century, and the Coalition for Sustainable Rail, a research organization dedicated to advancing steam locomotive and fuel technology.

The program turns the zoo’s 15-inch gauge railroad — which loops around the zoo on 1.25 miles of track — into a classroom where students can learn about steam locomotives and other technology. The long-term goal of the initiative is for students to design and build an advanced steam locomotive that is powered by renewable fuels. But before the students tackle that, they’re designing a better water tower.

This fall, students from six local high schools designed their own water towers and on Wednesday they presented their creations to a design review board hosted by the Milwaukee School of Engineering CREATE Institute.

The students will produce a more detailed drawing this coming spring and again present their plans to a design board at the University of Wisconsin in May. One design will be selected and next summer students will be able to participate in a STEM boot camp where they will be able to make their designs a reality. Next fall, they’ll start working on a coal tower.

Davidson Ward, president of CSR, says the partnership with the local schools benefits both the students and railroad industry.

“We are excited to assist in this education program, in large part as it serves as a means to familiarize a new generation with railroads,” Ward says. “The rail industry overall is facing challenges attracting new talent in the face of retiring baby boomers, and the ability to engage a new generation with the concept of railroading, even on the scale of the Zoo train, is something that is both important and meaningful.”

The coalition has previously partnered with the zoo railroad to test torrefied biomass fuel in one of its 4-6-2 Pacific-type locomotives.

Chuck Wikenhauser, director of the Milwaukee County Zoo, says he is excited about the partnership between the zoo, the coalition, and Learn Deep.

“We are excited to have the Zoo train serve as a tool to engage local schools and universities in a collaborative learning opportunity that will both improve our railroad at the Zoo and create lasting learning experiences,” he says.

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