Robotics program sparks interest in engineering for Detroit students

Anna Shulte/Daily
FIRST Robotics Team 396, from Finney High School in Detroit, learn techniques before beginning construction on their robot on Tuesday, Jan. 11, 2011. Buy this photo

BY SAMANTHA NORMAN
For the Daily
Published January 11, 2011

A group of Engineering students are taking a creative approach to encourage education — by employing robots.

Through the Detroit-based Michigan Engineering Zone, 15 students in the University’s College of Engineering are exposing the high school students in 12 Detroit Public High Schools to engineering studies and hands-on experiences through the national FIRST Robotics Competition.

The College of Engineering began working with the Michigan Engineering Zone, or MEZ, in January 2010 to provide a collaborative workspace in Detroit where high school students can work with University students and professional engineers to build robots for the non-profit FIRST organization.

High school students across the country compete in the robot construction competition. Participating students also have the chance to receive a range of scholarships — 60 percent of which are for science, technology, engineering and math majors, according to the FIRST website.

Jeanne Murabito, executive director for student affairs at the College of Engineering, said the MEZ offers an array of resources like a computer lab and machine and electrical shop, that help students construct their robots.

“It’s amazing for these high school students to be able to spend time with the University of Michigan students and professional engineers,” Murabito said. “They learn not only about robotics skills, but also what it’s like to be a top engineer and what it’s like to get into a university.”

Murabito said the MEZ does much more than assist in the construction of robots for competition.

“We’re trying to give the students information … on how to get into Michigan (and) how to get into college,” Murabito said. “We’re helping some of these students with admissions applications and financial aid.”

Tito Huffman, a professional engineer and mentor for the high school students, said the mentoring program extends beyond helping students prepare for the FIRST competition.

“It ultimately ends up being more than that,” Huffman said. “We’re a coach for basic life skills. We end up explaining our experiences as … guidelines for them.”

Engineering sophomore Jonathan Meed said his experience competing in FIRST as a high school student compelled him to participate in the mentorship program when he became a University student. Meed said his positive experience working with the high school students during last year’s competition prompted him to return as a mentor for a second season.

Meed said he believes the future of the work force in the country lies in engineering.

“Technology is the only way that the U.S. can stay competitive in terms of education and jobs,” Meed said. “Getting the high school students to study as early as they possibly can is the only way to get people involved who normally would never be involved with science or engineering.”

According to a Brandeis University study from 2005, students who participated in the FIRST competition are more than three times as likely to study engineering than their peers who didn’t participate.

On Saturday, Meed joined other mentors and high school students in Detroit to commemorate the kickoff of this year’s FIRST Robotics Competition season.

“The room was buzzing,” Meed said. “The new students were kind of awestruck and didn’t even know what to think. The returning students were itching to get started and were ready to go for the new year.”