Academic Challenge alumni credit experience for college, career prep
“WYSE Academic Challenge has been the single most influential extra curricular activity that I have been involved in during high school,” said Brittany Pace, a senior at Marquette High School in Alton, Illinois. “Studying for the tests has not only helped me in the competition, but also in my coursework and for college in the future.”
Whether it has been known as JETS or WYSE or Academic Challenge, the University of Illinois College of Engineering has been offering some of the best high school students in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) a chance to compete for state championships for five decades. Alumni of those teams say that opportunity to compete has provided immeasurable benefits and oftentimes has laid the groundwork for a future in an engineering field.
Starting at Regional competitions in February, students compete as individuals or on 14-member teams, hoping to first advance to the Sectionals and then to the State Finals, which this year are April 11-14 on the University of Illinois campus. Those competitors take tests in two of the seven categories (biology, chemistry, computer science, engineering graphics, English, mathematics, and physics).
Academic Challenge competitions have similar dynamics to team sports. It teaches life lessons, brings out competitiveness, and forges lasting friendships. It also helps develop interest in those subject areas, giving students a head start in college.
"The atmosphere is not only intense, but also exciting,” said Eric Mason, a former captain of the WYSE team at Lanphier High School in Springfield and a biomedical engineering major at Stanford Stanford University. “Being around so many people like me gave me assurance that I was not the only one with an intense intellectual vitality."
“WYSE has helped me grow as a programmer by making me look at its different aspects,” said Mason’s teammate Austin Duffie. “I often like to just execute code and develop, but WYSE has challenged me and taught me the academic side of programming - the harder mathematical aspects.”
The overall goal of Academic Challenge is to attract a greater number of talented and diverse students to careers in engineering and the sciences. The University of Illinois offers scholarships to the top individual first-place and second-place winners in each STEM subject who decides to enroll in the College of Engineering. Many have used that experience to bring focus to their career choice and use Engineering at Illinois as a steppingstone to that end.
Bryce Kille graduated from Woodstock North High School and is a sophomore at Illinois majoring in chemistry and computer science.
“I wasn’t sure where I wanted to go to college, but I got to tour campus on my trip to the State Finals,” Kille said. “I was impressed that there was a building for virtually every discipline of science. To me, it was dream come true – a whole campus built on science.”
Aubrey Laskowski is a freshman at Illinois after competing in the WYSE Academic Challenge at Maroa-Forsyth High School, placing seventh at last year’s state competition in computer science. He is majoring in mathematics and computer science and has been offered an internship in finding massive numbers through parallel computing techniques at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications on campus.
“Without WYSE, I doubt I ever would have gone into computer science and I certainly would not be where I am now.” Laskowski said. “Despite being in my first year I am already taking 400-level mathematics courses and I am currently involved in research through the Illinois Geometry Lab involving AP College Football Poll data.”
Many more have already used their experience in WYSE and at the University of Illinois in their chosen field.
Joe Greathouse competed three years in WYSE for Edwards County, placing fifth in computer fundamentals/science in 2001. He received a Bachelor of Science degree in computer science from Illinois and an MSE and PhD from Michigan. He is now a research engineer for Advanced Micro Devices, a major designer of microprocessors out of Austin, Texas. Greathouse credits his coach, Janette Zurliene, for introducing him to WYSE, which ultimately jumpstarted his career interest.
“Having a background in a handful of my major's fundamental courses kept me from being completely overwhelmed during that first year of college and sparked my interest in my field before I knew what my field was,” Greathouse said.
He adds that although WYSE may seem like an individual competition, participating in it taught him how valuable everyone on a team can be. “All the people on my team were really good at areas that I barely had an idea,” he said. “It was nice to be part of a group that had this wide range of skills.”
A few are passing on their passion for Academic Challenge to a new area of competitors. Nathan Young and Joseph Zeller competed at Morton High School under head coach Mary Holmgren and are both back at their alma mater helping her coach the team.
“WYSE Academic Challenge helped me develop a passion for the sciences that I now try to share with my students as a high school science teacher,” said Young, who placed at state in 2007 in engineering graphics. “It helped me to really see my strengths and challenge myself intellectually. Eventually, it let me see the advantages of pursing a career in the sciences. It has been a joy for me to coach the chemistry and physics students on the same WYSE team that I once competed. I am so thankful for the opportunity that Academic Challenge offers high school students who were like me.”