Michigan Engineering Zone mentors Detroit high school students in STEM fields

Thursday, January 17, 2019 - 8:14pm

The Michigan Engineering Zone invites students from surrounding communities to participate in a year-long training and building process, which culminates in an international robotics competition.

The Michigan Engineering Zone invites students from surrounding communities to participate in a year-long training and building process, which culminates in an international robotics competition. Buy this photo
Courtesy of Ayana Davis

The Michigan Engineering Zone, a program offered annually to Detroit-area high school students, caters to those who are interested in working in the engineering industry. This program, referred to as MEZ, invites students from surrounding communities to participate in a training and building process culminating in a robotics competition. The University of Michigan College of Engineering and Detroit Public Schools Community District collaborate on the project, which now serves 19 Detroit high schools and more than 370 students each year.

The College of Engineering provides high school students with the resources necessary to build a robot efficiently and successfully, while college-aged mentors from the College of Engineering and engineering professionals aid students throughout the duration of the program. Mentors are often alums of the MEZ, and they add an element of relatability to participants in the program.

Engineering freshman Nayah Daniel, a former MEZ participant, is now a student mentor in the program. Daniel discovered the MEZ as a high school senior after she learned her school no longer offered an underwater robotics program she was interested in joining. She was able to use her connections at the MEZ as a way to learn more about the University, and it solidified her interest in pursuing naval architecture engineering.

“I knew that after my time at the MEZ that I loved it there. I wanted to be able to give back and to be one of those people that could guide the students,” Daniel said. “My only way to give back to the MEZ and still be a part of it was to be a mentor, so I sought that opportunity.”

The MEZ isn’t a typical after-school activity or tutoring session, according to Jeanne Murabito, executive director for student affairs in the College of Engineering. The support from the University mentors allow students to make connections in a way that is meaningful and enjoyable. Additionally, the MEZ offers resources including college preparation and advice to those who might not have otherwise considered furthering their education post-high school.

Murabito is also the recepient of the Distinguished Diversity Leaders Award, which is given to staff members whose efforts demonstrate a commitment and dedication to diversity at the University. Murabito explained how she was appreciative for the recognition and looks forward to continuing DEI efforts at the University. 

"Being chosen for the Distinguishhed Diversity Leaders Award is easily one of the most significant highlights of my professional career," Murabito said in an email to The Daily. "I am so fortunate to have leadership in the College of Engineering and the University who have created the innovative culture where we can work in the service of DEI. There is not better time to do the work of diversity than now." 

“Because (the program is) affiliated and supported by the College of Engineering at Michigan, we work with the students on college applications and on financial aid,” Murabito said. “We are talking about higher ed and trying to get (students) excited about going into a field such as science, technology engineering or math.”

MEZ Director Julian Pate said some of his favorite aspects of MEZ are learning from the students and being able to see their excitement. 

“The biggest joy is all that I learn from the high school students,” Murabito said. “When you meet these students and see how excited they get about working on a project as a team and building those skills that they need to succeed in the future, it’s pretty amazing to watch and be a part of.”

Pate mentioned the support MEZ staff members give to students, in regards to encouraging collaboration and executing positive reinforcement during the program each year. Students come from various backgrounds and skill levels, but Pate emphasized that the same confidence is instilled in each participant of the program.

“We don’t make a distinction between (students) and if you were in the room, you wouldn’t know who was (from) where,” Pate said. “The point is to help them understand that they have the necessary skills to be involved, to recognize that the value of collaboration is paramount.”

After participating in the MEZ during their high school careers, many students continue on to engineering-related courses of study or careers — whether that be a trade school, a two-year or four-year institution, or the military. Of the 31 high school seniors that graduated from the MEZ last year, each student had a post-high school plan in place. Five of those students matriculated to the University; three are in the College of Engineering and two are in LSA. All five students received a scholarship through the Go Blue Guarantee, which grants free tuition to qualifying low-income students.

Within its 10 years, the MEZ has been able to extend its influence. They received funding from and partnered with Qualcomm this season, which has allowed them to expand the program to serve Detroit-area middle schools. The middle school program currently has about 3,000 middle school students and is growing. 

For the future, there are further plans the staff would like to see implemented. In terms of time and space constraints, Pate noted greater funding would allow for a further expansion of the program. Additionally, by expanding the program, the hope is that students will learn self-sufficiency and be able to apply their skills to their own high school curricula. Currently, there is one MEZ team that does all of their preparation in school without dependence on MEZ staff, while another team is almost entirely disconnected from the program.

“Ideally, we’d like to see a team that came with no experience whatsoever in FIRST Robotics grow their own resource base, in terms of relationships with sponsors and relationships with professional mentors and others, so that they build their own operational base and they could do this task in school," Pate said.