SAU students ‘engineer’ Christmas



Barb Arland-Fye
Ann Schwickerath, director of Project Renewal in Davenport, shows two participants how to operate a game during a Dec. 12 Christmas party that the engineering department at St. Ambrose University in Davenport held for Project Renewal.

By Barb Arland-Fye
The Catholic Messenger

DAVENPORT — Twelve children from a low-income neighborhood served by Project Renewal watched in awe as St. Ambrose University engineering students competed in a robotics competition in an engineering classroom last week. The older students cheered as each robotic vehicle, the size of a scale model car, lumbered across a floor mat in search of colored chips that had to be moved to specific spaces.

After watching the competition, the younger students moved into an adjacent room for a pre-Christmas party held in their honor. Christmas presents, hot cocoa and cookies awaited them. Professor Jodie Prosise, who chairs the university’s engineering and physics department, delivered the first gift: a story about her life intended to inspire the children to consider their potential and career opportunities.

As she talked about her childhood growing up in a single-parent household, photos appeared on the whiteboard to accompany her story. The main point: she came from a home where she and her sister were loved and encouraged in their studies. Prosise asked the Project Renewal kids if they had a favorite teacher. The kids nodded. She described a chemistry teacher in high school who encouraged her to attend an engineering camp. That experience changed her life.


But Prosise also pointed out that while she was good at math, she had to work hard in school. Chemistry, for example, was a challenging class for her. But she continued her studies through college, graduate school and earned her doctorate in engineering. Now she has children of her own. Her two young daughters accompanied her to the Christmas party.

Prosise asked the engineering students in attendance to share a bit about their lives, too, further reinforcing the idea that childhood dreams can be nurtured at home and in school. “What made you want to be engineers?” Project Renewal Director Ann Schwickerath asked the students. “I really liked to play with my Legos. I knew I wanted to design things,” volunteered Miranda Noak, a St. Ambrose University junior. “I want to develop devices that help people with daily living tasks,” she told the students. The other engineering majors also talked about their love for the field.

Unbeknownst to the Project Renewal kids, the engineering students had manufactured games — pin ball machines and labyrinths — now hidden inside colorful Christmas wrapping paper. Prosise told The Catholic Messenger that her students have always been involved in service projects. Previously, her classes manufactured assistive technology devices that Prosise took on trips to Brazil to give to people with disabilities. But she also wanted to share her students’ skills with a Quad-City organization.

“I reached out to Project Renewal,” Prosise said. It fits the St. Ambrose mission, a tradition of service, or enriching the lives of others, she added. “I was excited to have another resource for the kids to learn about other opportunities,” Schwickerath said. “With kids, the more you can expose them to other opportunities, the more they are able to learn and to make choices.” Project Renewal’s main purpose is to be a positive presence for children and their families in the low-income neighborhood of Davenport where Project Renewal is located. Children receive treats and engage in educational and recreation activities year-round in Project Renewal’s afterschool and summer park programs.

Finally, the moment arrived for the Project Renewal kids to select their gifts. They tore off the colorful wrapping paper and examined the games with curiosity. The professor, her students and Schwickerath offered tips on operating their new games. Noak smiled as she watched the recipient of her pin ball machine play the game. Did she also enjoy the manufacturing process? “Oh, yeah,” she said.

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