Detroit STEM programs launch local youth into science, tech careers

S-T-E-M. Remember those letters! They stand for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math, and jobs in those fields are jumping right now.
Michigan will need to fill an estimated 274,000 STEM-related positions by 2018, according to a report from Unfortunately, the state is struggling to produce workers qualified to take those jobs.
Jason Lee is the executive director of the Detroit Area Pre-College Engineering Program (DAPCEP), an organization dedicated to helping historically underrepresented youth learn STEM subjects. He says state schools aren't adequately preparing students to find careers in these fields.
"Our public K-12 education systems are not generating the volume of college-ready youth today as they did 10 years ago," he says. "Exacerbating this problem, the admission criteria for universities, locally and nationally, have increased. Even students with interest and motivation are not able to access these fields because they will not be admitted to STEM colleges or programs."
The situation is even worse for African American and Latino students than their white counterparts, says Lee, since their median household net worth is significantly lower. The passage of Proposal 2 in 2006, which effectively bans Affirmative Action in state public institutions, has also hurt Michigan universities' ability to offer support to students with financial challenges.
"Those who can will seek admissions out of state. Once they leave Michigan, it is hard to get them back," Lee says. 
Despite the emergence of charter schools and the Educational Achievement Authority, Lee hasn't seen a noteworthy increase in the educational outcomes of Detroit youth with respect to tech careers or post-secondary STEM education. Thankfully, however, organizations like DAPCEP offer resources to help fill the gaps and give motivated local students a leg up in the world of STEM.
DAPCEP is a nonprofit that partners with universities, training programs, and K-12 schools to help students find careers in STEM professions. The group holds 5-week classes in the fall and spring on consecutive Saturdays at various university, professional, and community campuses. It also sponsors summer camps at Michigan universities.
With the support of the Skillman Foundation, DAPCEP has partnered with Wayne State University's Center for Latino/a and Latin American Studies; Black Family Development, Inc.; and Speak It Forward, Inc. to deliver hands-on STEM workshops, mentoring, career exploration, and arts to students in Detroit's Osborn, Cody Rouge, and Southwest neighborhoods.
Nanotechnology, chemical engineering, calculus, video game design, ACT preparation, and entrepreneurism are all topics covered by the program, which is supported by a sizable parent and alumni network.
Nina McDaniel, a 12th grader, had a speech impediment that caused her to lag behind in reading, math, and science. She credits the program with getting her on track to study mechanical engineering at University of Detroit-Mercy.
"DAPCEP really helped me and released my anxiety of talking in front of people because our projects involved presentations," she says. "I made friends and it gave me confidence and taught me how to network with other people. It's given me the opportunity to explore my curiosity."
The Michigan Science Center
Based in a futuristic building in Midtown Detroit, the Michigan Science Center (MSC) exists to inspire children and families to discover, explore, and appreciate STEM subjects.
Best known for its exhibits, the center also offers Hands On Programming (HIP) for students from preschool to 12th grade covering subjects like magnets, DNA, physical and chemical changes, electricity, and Newton's law. There are grants in place to make field trips more accessible.
The center also offers "homeschool HIP days" for parents and kids; holds workshop events at schools, libraries and other locations; sponsors summer camps; and works to connect area Fortune 500 companies with potential employees.
Now over two years old, the center has reached over 65,000 people across the state. In the city of Detroit, it works closely with Detroit Public Schools on both field trips and teacher professional development. The Science Center even provides lab space for two Southwest Detroit parochial schools, Christo Rey and Holy Redeemer.
"I think there's a perception among kids that [STEM subjects are] hard," says MSC group sales coordinator Jennifer Kanyo. "Our programs really offer kids opportunities through their participation to see that it's not beyond them -- that it's something that they can very easily do and something that's exciting to do."
FIRST Robotics
Among the Michigan teams who flocked to Grand Rapids in April to compete in a robot tot-stacking battle, part of the international FIRST Robotics competition, were the Doughbots.
Representing Pershing High in Detroit's Educational Achievement Authority district, the team placed 88th out of 100 its first time out, better than expected.
The Doughbots team currently consists of three students: Mario Bean, Antwain Jones and Emario Johnson. They meet after school Monday through Thursdays and build bots on Saturdays at Midtown's Michigan Engineering Zone, a space shared by about a dozen other Detroit teams.
Coach Caitlyn Kozak says the program rather naturally incorporates a wide range of STEM subjects. For example, the kids participating in the program put things they learn in the classroom into practice, such as when they use the Pythagorean Theorem to calculate the length and angle of robot arm components.
"The kids get a kit of parts, but there's no directions for them in terms of how to build it or what it should look like," she says.
Emario Johnson says the program has opened up a whole new world for him.
"One of my friends, he kept asking me, 'Do you want to join?' The first time I joined, it helped me understand what I want to do, and it was fun," he said. "It made me want to go into chemical engineering."
The team is currently planning a strategy for how to get more Pershing students involved. They're also excited about Gov. Snyder's announcement that Detroit will co-host FIRST's international championships between 2018 and 2020.
DAPCEP, the Michigan Science Center, and the FIRST Robotics programs show there are powerful resources available to Detroit students that could help them fill the demands of the region's job market. Connecting with them could be the key to opening the door to an exciting STEM career.
This piece is part of a series on the importance of transforming Southeast Michigan into a STEM hub. It is supported by the Michigan Science Center.

David Sands is a Detroit-based freelance writer. Follow him on Twitter @dsandsdetroit.

All photos by Marvin Shaouni.