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Dan Negrut

Dan Negrut

A perception exists that major academic institutions, the University of Wisconsin-Madison included, don't do enough to attract and keep minority students and faculty on their campuses.

The UW will be the first to admit that more needs to be done to create a diverse educational community, including changing the attitudes of some students and faculty who make campus life uncomfortable for those who don't look like them.

But it isn't as if many at the school aren't trying. While the UW's leadership is working to solve the perennial diversity problem with ambitious and expensive recruitment programs, there are many smaller efforts that go unnoticed, but might just turn out to be as effective in the long run.

I was made aware of one of them at, of all the places, the Camp Randall Memorial Sports Center (better known as the "Shell") where engineering associate professor Dan Negrut is one of a bunch of us who work out in the early morning to keep our bodies fine-tuned. His routine works, mine obviously doesn't.

I discovered this summer that for the past 11 years professor Negrut, a mechanical engineer, has been bringing high school sophomore and juniors, most of them ethnic and racial minorities, to campus for a weeklong program to introduce them to the concepts of engineering and how they relate to everyday life.

He explains that the bottom line is to get these youngsters, most of them already exposed to computers, excited about how computerization and engineering work hand in hand to solve problems and explore new ideas. Computer simulation, for example, can replicate autonomous vehicles and engineering principles, and then determine how the vehicle will respond in different circumstances.

That kind of modeling and simulation was once a pilot program for NASA, helping scientists understand how a Rover vehicle would perform in lunar space.

Shortly after he came to the university here, Negrut came to realize that only 3 percent of engineering students were other than white (mostly male) students. And that stemmed mainly from the simple fact that many minority kids were never exposed to the challenges of computational sciences.

"I looked around and saw this as a real and obvious need," he said.

So when applying for research grants, mostly to the National Science Foundation, he began adding $10,000 to the request to fund a summer program for high school kids to get that exposure.

"I've always been lucky to get them approved," he confided, adding that the money has enabled him to bring to campus about 20 students, mostly from Wisconsin, to not only learn how engineering and computers work in tandem, but to be exposed to what life is like on a big university campus.

The program is called "ProCSI," pronounced PROXY, and students are recruited by high school faculty — Madison and Green Bay schools were among the first to participate. In more recent years, some students have come from out of state, where word is getting around about the program's success.

Negrut, who holds the Mead-Witter Foundation professorship in the College of Engineering, is a native of Romania. He came to the U.S. in 1993 when he got a scholarship to the University of Iowa and went on to earn his doctorate there.

"That's why I had some mixed feelings when the Badgers and Hawkeyes played last week," he laughed.

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After he achieved his doctorate, he worked briefly for a software company in Michigan and then got a job with the Department of Energy's Argonne Laboratories. From there, he came to the UW, where he began teaching mechanical engineering and specializing in computerization application.

"Engineering coupled with computers is booming," he said. "It all stems from how we can use computers to solve today's problems."

Negrut and his wife Cristina have two sons in Madison schools. Andrew is a freshman at West High, and Peter is in seventh grade at Hamilton Middle School.

So far the summer program he started because he saw a need has exposed nearly 200 minority youngsters to the world of engineering and all it has to offer.

It's one small step in attacking the diversity problems that plague today's society, but small steps like Dan Negrut's might just one day add up to giant one.

Dave Zweifel is editor emeritus of The Capital Times. dzweifel@madison.com and on Twitter @DaveZweifel. 

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