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Robots enter Flint, change lives

Jurnell Burton II

In one stereotype that persists for inner city youth, there are but two paths: Make it in professional sports or join a gang.

Flint resident Jurnell Burton II likes sports all right. He surely doesn't like gangs.

But Burton sees another, more practical and rewarding choice: the universe of math, science and engineering.

“There is a third option,” he said. “What the world needs is as many doctors and engineers as it can get. There are things that need to get done.”

Burton, a college-bound senior at Mott Middle College High School in Flint, is chasing that dream as a member of a high school robotics team comprised of minority students like himself who are unafraid to shatter a stereotype or two along the way.

With the help of Flint-based Kettering University, more inner-city and minority students will get similar opportunities as Kettering opens a community robotics center on Sept. 19. Housed in an old gym that had been closed and used for storage since 1995, it furnishes space for eight high school teams, a practice area and a lab that includes machining tools and software. The renovation is part of a $15.5 million pledge to the school by Charles Stewart Mott Foundation.

“It's been a dream of mine for the last 10 years,” said Dr. Henry Kowalski, 78, who has taught at Kettering for 50 years.

He is only too mindful that African-American students lag behind other demographic groups in college engineering, math and science programs. According to the American Society for Engineering Education, black students accounted for 4.2 percent of bachelor's degrees in engineering in 2012. That's less than a third of the overall percentage of blacks – about 13 percent – in the U.S. population. More troubling, that marked a significant decline from the 5.1 percent of black engineering graduates in 2003.

But Kowalski said that robotics competition – which can be just as intense in its own way as any high school football game – can help reverse that trend and open doors minority students might not otherwise walk through.

“It's a skill set,” he said. “It's there. Just about every graduate has the ability, but they have not had the opportunity. Robotics brings out the best in them and proves they can do it.”

UM robotics in Detroit

The University of Michigan offers a comparable program with its Michigan Engineering Zone (MEZ) in Midtown Detroit, a robotics center opened in 2010 and supported by the school's College of Engineering. It hosted 16 Detroit high schools for the 2014 robotics season, with team membership that was about 98 percent minority.

Of the 40 MEZ high school seniors who graduated in 2013, 38 went on to higher education, including six admitted to the University of Michigan. (The other two joined the military.)

Julian Pate, the program's director, guesses that number might have been half that had those students not been exposed to robotics. He noted that many participants come from high-crime neighborhoods and homes stressed by poverty, a world where college can seem hopelessly out of reach.

“Absolutely, the MEZ has made a difference,” Pate said. “It provides a cone in which they can put those concerns aside and realize what is possible for them intellectually. It can play a tremendous role in helping students understand that engineering and science are not beyond their grasp.”

Since 1999, Kettering has awarded scholarships totaling $3.5 million to robotics participants. Many have gone on distinguish themselves in fields like engineering and science. That includes numerous minority students, who comprise about one-fourth of the school's student body.

Known as FIRST Robotics, the discipline was founded in 1989 by New Hampshire inventor and entrepreneur Dean Kamen as a hands-on means to ignite interest in science, technology, engineering and math. So-called STEM education is a priority for Gov. Rick Snyder and Michigan business leaders, who note that many well-paying, highly skilled jobs go unfilled in the state because employers can’t find enough qualified applicants.

FIRST competitions challenge teams to solve a common problem in a six-week time frame using a standard parts kit and shared rules.

Last year, teams were challenged to construct self-guided robots that would fire Frisbees into target slots and climb a tower. Team members together logged thousands of hours, bringing principles of engineering, physics, math and computer programming to the task.

In 2014, there were more than 2,700 high school teams with 68,000 participants in the United States. About a fourth of Michigan's high schools compete.

Call me a nerd

“I don't mind being called a nerd. It gives you a sense of teamwork, a sense of hardship to go through to complete something that you could never accomplish otherwise. You can look at what you have done and say, 'This is mine. I crafted it. I'm the reason it works.'” -- Jurnell Burton II, Flint high school student

Kettering has sponsored a team known as Metal Muscle for a decade. One of the eight teams to be housed in the new center, it is comprised of home-schooled and private school students and often includes minority students from districts in the Flint area and Oakland County. School officials say nearly all its members have gone on to some form of post-secondary education, despite the fact many had no college aspirations when they joined the team.

Flint's Burton has competed since he was a freshman at Flint Northern. Though he also played varsity football, he found his niche in robotics. He competes for FIRST F.I.R.E., which stands for Flint Inspires Real Engineers.

“I don't mind being called a nerd,” he said. “It gives you a sense of teamwork, a sense of hardship to go through to complete something that you could never accomplish otherwise. You can look at what you have done and say, 'This is mine. I crafted it. I'm the reason it works.'”

After two years at Flint Northern, Burton entered Mott Middle College High School, where students can take a combination of high school and college classes. Burton's fall schedule includes high school classes in chemistry and statistics and college courses in biology and career development. He's thinking of pursuing a career as a biomedical engineer.

Flint resident Sheila Barnes, 52, is a mentor to his team, a role she's taken on since 2009. Her sons, Brandon and Cameron, both participated in high school robotics. Brandon, a senior at Western Michigan University, majors in computer information systems. Cameron, a junior, is pursuing a degree in physical therapy.

“Science and math scares most of the kids,” Barnes said.

“But you can reach them. People ask me why I am doing this and I just say that I am trying to reach these kids and let them know there are things other than sports. I am trying to inspire them to go to college.”

Brandon Barnes, 24, competed in robotics throughout high school. He said it had a “huge impact” on his outlook on learning.

“At that time, I was kind of bored with what was going on in high school. I always learned working with my hands and from day one I got in and started working with hammers, tools, wrenches. What you are learning, you are applying right then and there.”

He's been a mentor himself to the F.I.R.E. team since 2009. One way or another, he's seen the program work similar magic on minority students as they rise to the challenge.

“You can do so much toward these students who are seeking other ways out. I feel that more of the communities need help thinking outside of the box.”

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