U-M Program Steers Detroit Kids Toward STEM Careers

8/17/12Follow @XconomyDET

I love my job for many reasons. Among them is the fact that every week, I learn something new. This week, an invitation to watch a robotics demo put on by local high school teams at the Compuware Building in downtown Detroit led me to the Michigan Engineering Zone (MEZ), an innovative University of Michigan program that introduces Detroit students to careers in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM).

The Discovery Channel profiled the MEZ in its 2011 documentary, Detroit in Overdrive. (The MEZ piece appears at about the 16:30 mark.) Operating out of a 5,200-square-foot space on the corner of Woodward and Martin Luther King, MEZ exposes middle and high school kids to STEM through hands-on learning.

The MEZ also offers workshops in applying for college, ACT preparation, navigating the financial aid process, and winning scholarships. Detroit Public Schools (DPS) provides the transportation, says Jeanne Murabito, who oversees the MEZ, and so far about 500 DPS students have participated. “The College of Engineering supports the space,” Murabito explains. “We have a computer lab with lots of CAD software, a robot playing field, a machine shop, and build stations. Students from every corner of the city are coming to the MEZ and learning from each other.”

The MEZ started after DPS discontinued its robotics programs due to budget cuts. The University of Michigan wanted a way to serve students, but it found that many of its mentors weren’t willing to go into the rougher parts of Detroit. Murabito says she hit on the solution of using space in the university-owned Orchestra Place building in Midtown, which is centrally located and in a stable neighborhood. Murabito says the cities of Indianapolis and Traverse City, MI, are replicating the MEZ model to build programs of their own.

The MEZ also accommodates 12 First Robotics teams from various schools in Detroit that can’t provide adequate space or equipment for the teams. The space gives First Robotics students the opportunity to get technical assistance from U-M alumni, faculty, staff, and students, as well as professional engineers from the community.

Tito Huffman is one of those professionals. A design engineer with GM, Huffman mentors the Finney High School Highlanders First Robotics team. Finney, located on the northeast side of Detroit, sparked a small public outcry when it was slated for demolition last year to make way for a new $45 million school building, which many in the district deemed a waste of money. (Finney students will attend East English Village High School this fall while the new building is under construction.)

Despite the controversy, one imagines a new, state-of-the-art school is good news for the Finney Highlanders. Huffman says the robotics team is growing in popularity. With 13 members, the Highlanders team is the largest it’s ever been, which is likely a reflection of Huffman’s dedication as much as it is the appeal of robotics. He holds a lot of demos in the hallways of the school to entice more kids to join, and he also makes sure each student in the robotics program has a post-graduation plan, whether it’s college, skilled trades, or a job. Huffman is also a Detroit native and a graduate of DPS. “That’s one reason I’m back here. I want to show kids that you can come from this background and make a career out of engineering.”

Jacob Durrah, a new Finney grad who will start at U-M in the fall, says the MEZ and First Robotics gave him a snapshot of careers in computer science and robotics. He says until he joined the robotics team, he didn’t participate in school activities much. By his junior year, he was on the student council, in the chess club, and the president of the National Honors Society. First Robotics taught him how to problem-solve, as the mentors are careful to let the students figure out how to design and program robots. By his senior year, he was teaching his fellow First Robotics teammates. “The MEZ teaches you fellowship, leadership, and how to work in groups,” he adds.

Murabito says Durrah personifies why the MEZ’s outreach is so important, particularly in a school district as troubled and underfunded as DPS. The MEZ is now at the point where it can’t accept any more students in its robotics program.

Much to Murabito’s dismay, the MEZ had to turn schools away last year. “We have a successful model and we’d love to expand, but we need more funding,” she adds. “We’re always looking for more mentors and corporate funding.”

Sarah Schmid is the editor of Xconomy Detroit. You can reach her at 313-570-9823 or sschmid@xconomy.com. Follow @XconomyDET

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  • Guest

    This is great for the one kid that gets the scholarship and the robotics engineering job. No so great for the hundreds or thousands who’s job doesn’t exist anymore because of automation. I’m not against automation, it’s inevitable but we need to find new ways of employing people. There’s plenty of research to be done in biotech and medicine but the funding isn’t there to ramp up hiring, so I’m not sure I have a better answer.

  • Egrippa

    There’s a shortage of STEM jobs already — wages have fallen as jobs have been offshored. Train the kids to go into the medical field; boomers are getting old and need doctors, nurses, etc.

  • Sarah Schmid

    Actually, Detroit is one of the fastest growing cities in America in terms of new tech jobs. Almost every local tech company I talk to mentions that they’re hiring and they would prefer to hire Michigan talent.

    Sure, the medical field is a good bet, but there is plenty of science and technology involved in medicine! I just can’t see getting kids interested in STEM as a bad thing, no matter how shaky our economy may be at the moment.