Google grant grows Detroit high school robotics programs

More Detroit-area high school students will have access to expanded hands-on science and engineering after-school programs, thanks to a $250,000 Google grant to the Midtown makerspace known as the Michigan Engineering Zone.

The Michigan Engineering Zone, or MEZ, provides space, mentorship and tools for hundreds of students from across the metro area who compete in the national FIRST Robotics program each year.

FIRST students design, build and test robots that perform different tasks every year. The MEZ is a collaboration among the University of Michigan College of Engineering, Detroit Public Schools and FIRST to encourage young people to pursue careers in science and technology fields.

“The MEZ is an inspiring initiative and we’re excited to support the University of Michigan College of Engineering, Detroit Public Schools and FIRST in their mission. We hope this grant will enable the program to reach even more students in the Detroit area and continue to grow for years to come,” said Mike Miller, who leads Google’s Michigan operations.

This spring, the MEZ finished its eighth season with 18 teams and more than 275 students. Its leaders have recently added summer camps that reach 100 more students, and in-depth coding workshops for students who want to learn more. The grant from Google will allow the program to build the infrastructure to expand by 33 percent to reach a total of 500 students per year.

“I’m thrilled about this,” said Jeanne Murabito, MEZ founder and executive director for student affairs at the U-M College of Engineering. “With this gift from Google, we will be able to make the improvements and expansion of programming and services that are needed. Unfortunately, we’re at capacity right now and we’ve had to turn teams away.”

Leaders say MEZ is a springboard to higher education. During the 2016 MEZ season, 38 of the 40 seniors were accepted to two- or four-year colleges or universities. Of these, 80 percent planned to pursue an education and career in science or technology.

“In our technology driven society, the Michigan Engineering Zone has provided an educational haven within the heart of the city of Detroit for our technology-minded students,” said Rita Barksdale, instructional specialist in the Detroit Public Schools Community District’s Office of Mathematics Education. “With the ever-growing demand for a qualified workforce in science, technology, engineering and math fields, the MEZ provides exposure to engineering through hands-on work with robotics. The students of the Detroit Public Schools Community District are the grateful and fortunate beneficiaries of this partnership.”

Wayne Lester paid it forward. The 2017 U-M aerospace engineering graduate first came to the MEZ as a high school student.

“Participating in robotics is what cultivated my passion for engineering,” Lester said. “I loved every moment I spent at the MEZ, whether build season, ACT practice, or other academic focused workshops, it was all so helpful for me. Being around many of the U-M student mentors, I had the opportunity to ask all the questions I wanted about college. With all the great things I heard about U-M, it made my choice easy. All I needed to do was get accepted.”

Lester did. Then at U-M, he served as a MEZ mentor. Beginning this fall, he’ll start work on a master’s degree and his eighth robot-building season at MEZ.

“As Google well understands, MEZ students practice not only technical skills, but also other aptitudes that are vital in the modern workplace—teamwork, persistence, leadership and humility,” said Alec D. Gallimore, the Robert J. Vlasic Dean of Engineering. “We look forward to many more years of collaborating with FIRST Robotics, all of our partners and local high schools to help develop great students, great employees and great leaders for Detroit and the world.”

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