Spring 2024

High Yield

Micah Robinson bends a short length of sheet metal using an apparatus with three large cylindrical rollers that he designed.
Micah Robinson operates the sheet metal roller he designed and built in the Biological Systems Engineering Shop. Photo by Keegan Gering


Make “cool stuff.” That’s what Micah Robinson BS’23, MSx’25 wanted to do in the Biological Systems Engineering Shop. Thanks to the Martin and Kathleen Burkhardt Fund, that’s exactly what he did for two years as an undergraduate employee.

“When I applied, I went in, and I looked at all the machines in the shop, and I was like, ‘Wow, if I knew how to use them, I could do so many things — make things, fix things — the sky would be the limit,” Robinson says. “Getting that work-study assistance has made me much more confident and boosted my problem-solving ability.”

UW alums Martin BS’60, MS’64 and Kathleen Burkhardt started the fund 27 years ago. Since then, the married couple’s contribution has helped many biological systems engineering (BSE) students gain real-world skills in machining, fabrication, and assembly — how to use lathes, mills, welding equipment, 3D printers, and computerized numerical control routers. The fund, which paid Robinson’s $7,000 in wages, is available to students in the BSE and nutritional sciences departments in CALS and to environmental textiles and design majors in the UW School of Human Ecology, where Kathleen earned her bachelor’s degree. It also supports an internship in Allen Centennial Garden.

Both Martin and Kathleen have agricultural roots in Wisconsin. Kathleen grew up on a farm south of Kewaunee, and Martin’s grandparents owned a Century Farm south of Plymouth, so the fund gives first preference to students from rural Wisconsin. The Burkhardts also prefer that its recipients earn the assistance through work or service rather than as a scholarship, a throwback to Martin’s personal path through college.

As an undergraduate and graduate student at CALS in the 1950s and early 1960s, Martin gained hands-on experience in the shop at BSE (then called the Department of Agricultural Engineering). Now, he wants others to benefit as he did. “I probably got more out of working with machines and building fans and so forth there than I did in any engineering courses I took,” he recalls.

Kody Habeck BS’08, MS’11 has run the BSE shop since 2016. And he agrees with Martin — some things can only be learned through experience.

“A lot of students can design something that looks really nice on a computer, but they have a hard time putting manufacturing capabilities into that design,” says Habeck, who also teaches design classes in BSE. “They haven’t always thought through how they can actually make it.”

But Robinson has done the thinking and the hard work. Under Habeck’s supervision, he created — from scratch — a 20-inch-wide sheet metal roller with a hand crank that gets extra oomph thanks to a gearing mechanism he also developed. The added force lets the roller bend sheet metal as thick as three-sixteenths of an inch. The resulting curved pieces can be used in machinery that chops corn stover (harvest remnants) or as parts of chopper snouts that shoot cut material into a wagon.

After completing the computer-assisted design, Robinson reviewed manufacturing tolerances with Habeck. Then he made all the parts himself; he purchased components and did all the welding and fabrication.

Robinson caught the engineering bug by watching his grandfather, a farmer from Black River Falls, Wisconsin, who loved buying and repairing old tractors. “It does kind of feel like I’ve come full circle,” says Robinson, who is now working on his master’s degree in BSE, “and I’m doing something that my family has done for generations.”

“If Micah wants to become a design engineer, having done this work-study will make him far better off than most other similar graduates,” Habeck says. “He understands how something works. That’s why we’re grateful to have had this Burkhardt fund for so many years.”

Give the Gift of Experience
Interested in supporting work-study opportunities for CALS students? Contact Jodi Wickham by email or at 608-206-6058.

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