From 3-D printing to podcast studio, Ypsi Township nonprofit offers STEM resources for youth

Whether it's creating a podcast about insects or building robots, middle and high school students can explore their interests in science, technology, engineering, and math at UniteSTEM.
Whether it's creating a podcast about insects or building robots, middle and high school students with a passion for science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) subjects can explore those interests at an Ypsilanti Township-based nonprofit called UniteSTEM.

The nonprofit's mission is to make STEM educational resources more accessible and prepare southeast Michigan youth for the jobs of the future.

UniteSTEM's facility at 389 Airport Industrial Dr. includes a computer lab, maker spaces with state-of-the-art equipment like a 3-D printer, a podcast recording studio, and a community lounge. It also includes a large open space for performances or yoga classes, a small printing center for branding merchandise like T-shirts and mugs, and offices for community partners including the youth-focused nonprofits DEFY and Elevation Youth Corp.

UniteSTEM co-founders Frank Norton and Andrea Pisani are both Ypsilanti residents with many years of experience in education. Pisani was a math teacher for nearly two decades. She also served as supervisor of instruction in math and science for the Washtenaw Intermediate School District, and as director for a six-county collaborative called the Michigan Mathematics and Science Centers Network.

Norton is a former affiliate director of Project Lead the Way Michigan, a nonprofit that develops STEM curriculum for K-12 schools. Pisani says these experiences gave both founders a great perspective on STEM education across Michigan.

"We had a really good picture of what was available in different parts of Michigan in terms of STEM education," Pisani says. "We live in Ypsilanti and saw an opportunity. We wanted UniteSTEM to be more than a space to just expose young people to science. We wanted it to be a place where they could learn and do and develop skills that would be useful in the real world."
UniteSTEM staff Andrea Pisani, Frank Norton, and Janae Spears.
Norton says he and Pisani work to ensure UniteSTEM is "caring, accessible, and open to all." The nonprofit currently serves students who attend Ypsilanti Community Schools, Ann Arbor Public Schools, Detroit Public Schools, and Lincoln Consolidated Schools, as well as homeschoolers. Families can pay a membership fee to use UniteSTEM's facilities, although Norton says he and Pisani charge the "least amount possible" to cover their costs and also offer lots of free programming.

"If families cannot afford any cost we find a way to make it work," Norton says.

For the last three years, UniteSTEM has had a particularly robust partnership with Global Tech Academy in Ypsilanti and Central Academy in Ann Arbor – both under the umbrella of charter school management fim Global Educational Excellence (GEE). Students from those schools come to UniteSTEM daily to do their courses online and sometimes get homework help from UniteSTEM staff. Then students can work on projects that align with their passions.

"For instance, one of our kids is super into cars, so we 3-D printed some turbos for him, because he's interested in building an engine," Pisani says. "It gives students the opportunity to take pieces of what they're learning and explore them a bit more, within a context. That's something they don't always have the opportunity to do in a traditional school system."

For instance, some of the high schoolers are learning about the math of scaling. They are discussing how they can take what they're learning at Global Tech to make a drawing and then scale it up to paint a mural on one of the walls in the UniteSTEM building.

Norton says that all UniteSTEM programs are based on "applied, project-based learning." The partnership with the charter school network provides curricula necessary to align UniteSTEM programs with state requirements for graduation.

"Having that initial foundational component, and then building and integrating lessons that stack on top of those things, you can create individualized, differentiated projects for students," he says.
UniteSTEM student DeShawn Chambers.
Norton says that education is, at its heart, "an adventure."

"We want to change the ideas about education from being this thing where we crack open your head, dump in information, and you try to do something with it," Norton says. "School should be about that natural curiosity. It's not that I need to know how to do this math problem to take a test. I'm going to learn this math problem because I'm designing this part, or trying to solve this problem, or make something fit, or help someone else."

Eleventh-grader DeShawn Chambers only started at UniteSTEM about a month ago, and already he's exploring his interest in robotics. He made a connection with UniteSTEM staff through one of the nonprofit's summer programs when he was still in middle school. He'll be working with UniteSTEM staff to record himself assembling a robot from a kit that can take as much as eight hours to build. The tutorial videos can then be used to help show other students how to complete that robot. 

"When I was younger, I had toys, and I would take them apart and put them back together," he says. "When I started coming here, seeing all the different stuff I could get into, I was really interested."

Seventh-grader Luna Bordine can tell you all about Goliath beetles and Atlas moths. She didn't always love bugs, but her father's interest in insects like praying mantises and luna moths changed her mind. Now, relatives and friends send her interesting bugs, like a palo verde borer beetle her uncle sent her from Arizona.

She's hoping to book podcast studio time at UniteSTEM soon to create a podcast called "Luna B's Bug of the Week." She plans to share facts about a different bug each week and may include a video so viewers can hear what the bugs sound like and see what they look like under a microscope. 

"I never met another real girl that actually likes bugs and likes to hold them," she says. "I went to a cicada party once and had 12 cicadas on my hand."
UniteSTEM student Brooklynn Peterson.
Norton and Pisani are hoping to expand their programming to more ages. They've written a curriculum and are trying to secure funding for a career exploration program called U|Rise that targets young people ages 16-24. 

"It's a stacked program that goes through career fields over the course of two semesters," Norton says. "You start by learning engineering design, problem-solving, critical thinking, and computer literacy skills. You'll do some construction work, home maintenance and repair, how to put down tile, fix windows or doors, how to use a CNC router, manufacturing technologies."

The crash course would prepare a student to take standardized tests to get into a university program or an apprenticeship. Students would be paid for their time and would build up a savings account to help the student pursue the degree or buy uniforms or other supplies to help them start a career. 

Norton says UniteSTEM is based on the ideas of community and being of service. It's also about making resources available to all.

"Engineering, design, mechanics, creativity, all of that is for everyone. It's not for people who have lots of money. It's for everybody," he says.

To get involved at UniteSTEM, Pisani and Norton recommend following the organization's Facebook or just stopping by the facility. Summer programs are going live on UniteSTEM's website today, and an open house is in the works for sometime in mid-June.

Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township and the project manager of On the Ground Ypsilanti. She joined Concentrate as a news writer in early 2017 and is an occasional contributor to other Issue Media Group publications. You may reach her at sarahrigg1@gmail.com.

All photos by Doug Coombe.
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