Valerie and Tony Russell are rolling.
On a 90-degree day in late May, their SUV cruises the streets of Detroit’s Osborn neighborhood, their home. Each turn kickstarts a new story culled from a decade-plus of patrolling.
If you know Osborn’s reputation, you can guess what some of the stories are like. The body, shot dead, set on fire and left to burn in a vacant lot near Six Mile Road. The thwarted rape of a 13-year-old girl dragged into an abandoned garage on her way to school. And then there’s the street the Russells used to live on, where after-dark access used to be controlled exclusively by the block’s drug dealers.
“A lot of the young men here are frustrated with a lot of things,” says Tony, known as Bishop Russell to those at nearby New Covenant of Peace church. He and Valerie command a small army of volunteers that patrol the area by car to protect children going to and from school.
“There is a lot of frustration that drives (crime),” he adds. “A lot of broken relationships. Disappointment, dreams that have gone bad.”
Outsiders see Osborn as the sum of parts like those. They rehash nicknames like Red Zone, Murder Zone and, in a play on the area’s 48215 zip code, 4821-Die. In 2011, The Detroit News crunched statistics and labeled Osborn the city’s “deadliest neighborhood.”
It would be easy to follow numbers down that rabbit hole. But this isn’t that story.
The number to focus on here is 6099 – four digits that belong to a small group of students at Osborn High School. It’s their team number in the growing world of competitive robotics. It’s the number they carried with them all the way to the state championships in April – something Detroit public schools rarely do.
Small wins like this are visible around Osborn in recent years if you take the time to look. And it might be worth a long look. What’s happening in schools across Detroit through the national FIRST Robotics program has implications for individual neighborhoods, the city, the auto industry and Michigan’s economy as a whole. U-M’s Michigan Engineering Zone, an incubator for Detroit schools’ robotics programs known as the MEZ, is a small link between them.
Michigan has embraced the FIRST Robotics phenomenon like no other state, with 200 more high school teams than the next state, California.
Despite the exploding popularity here, however, Detroit public schools historically struggle to match the performance of other districts in robotics. A resource gap exists for areas that fall outside basic services and programs.
There have been recent improvements in the district, like efforts to bring arts programs back into the curriculum. But when FIRST Robotics arrived a decade ago with its new approach to encouraging math and science, Detroit was poorly-positioned to take advantage.
Detroit and state officials want this rising interest in robotics to continue. Both have enjoyed an economic resurgence in recent years that runs the risk of short-circuiting without more workers trained in math and science.
Often overlooked pockets of Detroit, like Osborn, may be the greatest source of untapped potential Michigan has to offer. Schools in those areas often turn to the MEZ, located along Woodward Avenue, to get robotics teams up and running.
Osborn is just one example. Detroit currently has 19 high schools participating in FIRST Robotics at the MEZ.
Each has kids willingly diving into the nerd-work of robot building at U-M’s facility in a way that, in previous generations, might have been reserved for sports teams or school plays. And FIRST Robotics rewards that effort with a similar kind of spectacle – electrifying competitions that surreptitiously encourage interest in math and science.
It’s 3 p.m., a mid-April Thursday afternoon in Saginaw.
Close your eyes and you might be at a concert, a professional wrestling match, maybe a college basketball game. Open them and it still might take a while to realize you’re not.
Saginaw Valley State’s Ryder Center is rocking right now with the noise of thousands of students, parents, teachers all poised to watch a video game come to life. Opening ceremonies for FIRST’s Michigan state championship are underway and things are … frenetic.
If you’re just showing up now, you’ll be lucky to park within a half-mile of the action. Herds of school buses have staked out spaces closest to the facility. This is a three-day event and, for many, a family affair, evidenced by the RVs and campers popping up in a sea of vehicles.
The arena stands are packed with people, grouped together by the T-shirt colors of the schools they’re backing. Mascots cruise the aisles while, overhead, four massive screens provide video feeds of action on the floor.
FIRST Robotics touts its events as “The excitement of sports, the rigors of science.” The fun and spectacle of it all is a Trojan horse. By the time students realize they’re learning, they’re already hooked.
Dean Kamen, inventor of the Segway and co-founder of FIRST, once identified the problem he hoped to combat through robotics: large groups of children, particularly girls and minorities who, by the age of 12, focused on futures in one of only two fields, sports or entertainment.
“All of their role models come from those two fields …,” Kamen told CNN in 2006. “So it seemed to me that we have to go into all of these communities around the country and really energize these kids to develop a passion to spend a lot of their time developing skill sets that … will prepare them for the good jobs, the exciting jobs, the high-paying jobs ….”
Amidst the noise on the floor in Saginaw, Dennis Martin moves through the crowds with two other Osborn High School teens, all in their yellow MEZ T-shirts. He is Team 6099’s only senior and, perhaps, the kind of kid Kamen had in mind.
Earlier in his high school years, Dennis will tell you, he was a quarterback. It’s clear he sometimes wishes he still was, but grades and life intervened. He’s here now and, today, he’ll be driving the Osborn Knight Riders’ robot, Kitt Jr., once matches get underway.
“It’s like a sport and, for people who give all their time and effort to it building these big things, it’s like a blood sport,” he jokes ahead of the team’s first match. “These guys are aggressive. And aggressive nerds are scary.”
Humor is a big part of Dennis’ infectious personality, something he uses to pump up his younger teammates. Had things turned out differently, he might be running a huddle on a Friday night. On this day, robotics provides the playing field and it’s giving him a glimpse at opportunities he might not otherwise have seen.
“This is…nah, it’s not the same (as football),” Dennis said. “This is, like, 100 percent mental, nothing physical. So you’ve got to be locked in up here (points to his head). And you have to know the technicalities of the rules. If you don’t know the rules, then it’s game over every time.”
Dennis is extremely hard not to like and root for. But today, he’s two months from graduation and remains unsure of what he’ll do after. Looking around the facilities at Saginaw Valley State, he says: “Something like this wouldn’t be bad.”
The Learning Lab
Rewind a bit. It’s 6 p.m., a late-March Tuesday night in Detroit’s Midtown.
A few blocks south of here, early Red Wings fans are crowding the bars ahead of a matchup with the defending Stanley Cup champs from Pittsburgh. Nayah Daniel, however, is caught up with a practical problem.
The 18-year-old sits cross-legged on the floor beneath a workbench in the MEZ. She’s puzzling over how best to improve the lifting ability of Cass Tech’s robot, which clamps wheels on opposite sides of a box to roll it upward.
She doesn’t puzzle long.
“The problem we had at our last competition was with the wheels gripping the boxes,” Nayah says from behind a pair of safety glasses. “So, we’re tripling the number of wheels to have more stability.”
Around her, every inch of the MEZ’s 5,200 square feet of first-floor space is alive with activity. More than a half-dozen local high school robotics teams are here tonight ahead of district FIRST competitions that get underway in Livonia and Troy in less than 48 hours.
When Michigan Engineering opened it in 2010, the MEZ hosted a dozen teams total. This year 19 high schools are using the facility. Students get the run of the place with access to workbenches, tools, supplies and, most importantly, mentors. Roughly 2,000 kids have been part of this since it started.
Nayah is the Cass Tech’s latest success story borne out of a partnership with the MEZ. She’s graduating in June, headed to the University of Michigan with scholarship assistance to study naval architecture – an interest, she’ll tell you, that came from her love of action movies.
Nearby is Wayne Lester, a Cass Tech grad, MEZ mentor and example of what could lie ahead for the kids here. Several weeks from now, he’ll leave U-M with a master’s degree in space systems engineering, heading off to a job with Lockheed Martin in Washington, D.C.
By comparison to Cass’ decade-old team, Osborn’s program is just getting started – technically in only its third year. An earlier robotics team at the high school dissolved. But Rockpointe Community Church of Sterling Heights has stepped in as a sponsor and, with the help of the MEZ, has the program flourishing in a short time.
With a new classroom dedicated to robotics on the way, Osborn is now a MEZ graduate program – no longer needing its on-site facilities but still receiving financial support and technical assistance when needed.
Not every Detroit school has a partner like Rockpointe. Thomas Reisner, while in his first year overseeing Osborn’s team, has three decades teaching in the school district and a unique understanding of the hurdles it faces.
“Years ago, all of the vocational tech programs were taken out of the local high schools and moved to the vo-tech centers…,” he said. “Then, when DPS started getting into FIRST Robotics, there were no workspaces left in the high schools.”
A well-funded school can feature teams with dozens of students, practice spaces and multiple robots. Some operate robotics programs through participation fees.
That’s far from Osborn High School’s reality.
“There is a suburban team, where it costs a student who wants to be a member … in excess of $600 a year to be a part …,” said Julian Pate, a retired Ford engineer and director at the MEZ. “If we were to put a dollar requirement on our students to participate, the room would be empty ….”
It’s why the MEZ exists, and why it’s here in Midtown.
“The program was developed in Detroit to ensure access to FIRST robotics opportunities for the high school students of the city,” Pate said. “If this laboratory was located in Ann Arbor and we invited the same 19 schools to participate, it just wouldn’t happen.”
A race for talent
Back in Saginaw, the national anthem at the state championship is just minutes away and Craig Stephens takes the floor. He’s chief of powertrain control research and advanced engineering for Dearborn-based Ford Motor Co., a major event sponsor. His employer, and the rest of Detroit’s auto industry, have a vested interest in what’s happening here.
Detroit and Silicon Valley have been in a battle for talent over the past decade as each attempts to become the hub for autonomous vehicle development and production. Maintaining a seat at the head of the technology table, however, requires more engineers than Michigan currently has.
A year ago at this time, General Motors CEO Mary Barra, an electrical engineer herself, announced a series of national initiatives to lure students into computer engineering.
“By expanding and improving access to STEM education, we’re developing teachers’ and students’ capabilities – and it’s my hope those students become graduates who are equipped to join us in the technical fields required to lead in the future of mobility,” she said during the rollout.
The need for new blood in Michigan’s engineering pipeline is the reason Stephens is on hand today and one reason why Ford has become a major sponsor of FIRST and the MEZ.
“The competition really mirrors the kind of things we do every day …,” Stephens tells the crowd. “We are about to enter a new age of robotics where they are going to be able to see, they’re going to be able to understand their surroundings, plan a course of action and then take that action.
“That’s what autonomous is all about.”
It’s not just the auto industry that is in need. Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder’s two-term run ends in January, and he is credited with marshalling an economic turn-around for the state. After what he described as a “lost decade” to start the 21st century, Michigan now ranks first in the creation of manufacturing jobs and sixth in terms of creating private sector jobs overall.
For years, Snyder has warned this could all come to a halt if Michigan is unable to keep providing employers with properly-trained workers. Roughly 811,000 jobs in IT, computer science, manufacturing and healthcare, most requiring specialized skills, are expected to be created by 2024.
Earlier this year, Snyder, unveiled his Marshall Plan for Talent – a multi-tiered approach to home-growing and recruiting workers with skill-sets for the new economy. He has also been a staunch supporter of First Robotics as means of setting students on a path to get those skills.
“FIRST is something that is an opportunity, first and foremost, to learn about science, technology, engineering and math …,” Snyder said. “That’s their first exposure to hands-on engineering, and it’s working.”
Jacob Durrah is proof. A few years ago at this time, he was wrapping up his senior year at Detroit’s Finney High School. Twelve months back, he was walking at U-M’s commencement ceremony with a degree in computer science and engineering.
Today, he’s finishing up his sixth month with Ford in the automaker’s college graduate program. After taking a rotation on the F-150 assembly line, he’s now working with the connected vehicles and services team.
It all started when Jacob’s teacher used a trip to the MEZ to lure him onto Finney’s robotics team.
“From that day on, I was hooked,” he said. “It started off with me realizing that I can be an engineer – that I do have these critical thinking skills that can be developed.”
The inner engineer
First round matches are about to get underway, so freshman Donald Lewis is leading Osborn’s team and Kitt Jr. to the arena. Today, the entourage consists of just three students since half are unable to attend the opening for various reasons. Reisner, and Rockpointe mentors Mike Aubry, Ken Lamers, Thomas Paonessa are along for support.
Ja’mon Miller brings up the rear. Both Resiner and Dennis will tell you that 17-year-old sophomore Ja’mon has a gift for robotics.
“He can be the foundation of our program for the next two years,” Reisner said. “He’s our technician. He handles everything.”
While other teens may struggle to muster enthusiasm for science, that’s never been a problem for Miller. In recent years, he’s also discovered an aptitude for math.
He’s evidence that the homegrown talent Michigan needs is here. Yet school and community leaders say kids aren’t likely to seek out engineering unless they’re shown what it is.
“Once I got into FIRST, I just knew engineering had to be my thing – like I have to be an engineer,” he said. “… My inspiration is Elon Musk. Elon Musk is the best, if you didn’t know. Him and Neil deGrasse Tyson, of course. They are the coolest people in science. But I want to grow up and be able to revolutionize the tech industry or the engineering field.”
Ja’mon is the kind of kid that gives hope to Quincy Carter back in northeast Detroit. As director of the Osborn Neighborhood Alliance, Carter bristles at the media’s coverage of the community – focused on crime while ignoring all that’s happening to make it a better place.
That negative imagery contributes to the cycle of hopelessness and gives kids no incentive to stay and fight for their neighborhood.
“A lot of times, Detroiters, or kids in the city are always taught, work hard in school and high school, then go to college and never come back…,” Carter said. “So how do we change that narrative and say ‘You get your knowledge, you come back to help rebuild?’”
And MEZ is often the first step in getting kids that knowledge.
“We are committed to enriching the educational experience of Detroit students and igniting a pool of talent that may, otherwise, remain untapped,” said Jeanne Murabito, a MEZ founder and executive director of student affairs for U-M’s College of Engineering. “It’s our role to serve and inspire the broader community to benefit the common good. Through the MEZ, we instill knowledge of the types of STEM careers that are available and the self-confidence for students to realize these goals are within their reach.”
Detroit takes the floor
If you don’t know what you’re watching, a FIRST Robotics match can be just … bewildering. Each match has six teams involved, with three schools teaming up per side. The objectives and rules of the game change every year.
Fortunately, Reisner is in the stands offering a tutorial as the game gets underway.
This year’s competition had students construct robots to move and lift boxes in what looks like a giant Mario video game. Boxes, or “power cubes,” can be placed up high atop a scale or on lower areas called switches.
Teams compete to keep the scale and switches tilted in their direction for as much of the two-and-a-half minute match as possible.
Each match starts off with 15 seconds where robots must operate autonomously. And in the final 30 seconds, robots can earn points by climbing the scale.
When their first match gets underway, the Knight Riders have trouble immediately. Kitt Jr. moves into the playing space for the autonomous sequence, but quickly comes to a halt. It sits frozen in place for 15 seconds – a penalty for not having autonomous capability – while other robots scuttle around hoisting cubes onto the scale and placing others into the switches with surprising precision and speed Kitt Jr. just doesn’t seem to have.
Osborn’s robot gets moving again at the 30-second mark and the robot drops its first box into the nearest switch receptor. Standing behind the plexiglass enclosing the game area, Dennis tries to send his robot to the further switch, but is caught behind a teammate robot and forced to wait as more seconds tick by.
At 45 seconds gone, the robot can move again and Dennis sends it to the far end of the game area. He manages to pick up and place a second cube into one of the switches, but half the game has slipped by at this point.
A third cube goes into the far switch and Dennis moves toward a fourth with just 45 seconds left. An opponent sitting a dozen feet away sees what he’s up to and moves quickly to block, wedging its robot between Kitt Jr. and the switch. It leaves Osborn’s team with nowhere to go as the clock shows just 40 seconds left.
In the stands, Reisner watches, arms folded and narrating with the even teacher’s tone he always uses. If this match ended right now, it would be a slight disappointment. But he’s waiting for something.
With 35 seconds left, Dennis makes his move. Kitt Jr. drops the cube it’s gripping and rolls back toward the other side of the game arena. It pulls in front of the scale, next to a teammate robot from Lapeer County. The announcer calling the match notices it too.
“Their partner, 6099, coming up with them,” he says. “That’s the Knight Riders out of the Motor City.”
Kitt Jr. extends a pair of arms over its head, reaching to clamp the edge of the scale above. In the stands, Reisner is already calling it.
“Yeah,” he says with a smile, “we can climb.”
Kitt Jr. hoists itself off the floor, quickly and smoothly, with 11 seconds to go. Its partner does the same. Both hang on until the clock expires, garnering additional ranking points.
It’s not a come-from-behind victory. In fact, it’s not a victory at all. This isn’t that story either.
The Knight Riders and their teammates have lost convincingly, 484-226. Osborn will go on to finish the three-day competition ranked 159th of the 160 teams here.
Right now, though, that matters little. After their first match, the Knight Riders are ranked among the top quarter of teams here. In just its third year, Team 6099 has arrived.
Back in the pit area, ahead of the second match, there are visitors – finally some familiar faces in an ocean of strangers. The MEZ’s Julian Pate and Ayana Davis are here. There are hugs, and a recounting of the contest that just took place. The Knight Riders have a cheering section of their own for the rest of the day.
Off they go
Fast-forward again. It’s 8:45 p.m., May 9, in Detroit. A different part of Midtown.
The annual end-of-year banquet for MEZ teams and their families is winding down at the Michigan Science Center, but there’s time for one more photo op. As is tradition, the MEZ’s graduating seniors come onstage to tell the audience of nearly 300 where each is headed next year. And 31 kids head toward the dais to share their news.
Several will go north to places like Michigan State or even further north to Michigan Tech. Some, like Nayah seated at a rear table, will go to Ann Arbor. Others are headed out of state.
Near the end of the line, Dennis steps up and takes his turn. In April, he’d been unsure of what lay ahead – if college was in his future or not. Tonight, it seems, he knows more than he did then.
“My name is Dennis…,” he says with his characteristic smile. “I go to Osborn High School. And I will be attending Central State University.”
With Dennis, that’s 31 of 31 MEZ seniors heading off to further their educations.
A violent shove
Gauze and bandages cover the right arm, knuckles to elbow, courtesy of the bullet that passed through 72 hours ago. Another round clipped the tip of Dennis’ right pinky. A dressing on the left side of his chest hints at shrapnel embedded beneath.
His back sports another dressing, centered an inch to the left of Dennis’ spine. That bullet broke several ribs.
Life gives some people gentle nudges to find their path. Dennis just got a violent shove. A July 13 visit to a neighbor ended with Dennis in the crossfire of an attempted robbery and his friend dead.
Before that night, Dennis’ ambitions from the banquet had stalled. He didn’t graduate with other Osborn seniors, needing summer school to tie up loose ends. But as weeks passed, getting a GED seemed more likely.
Experiences with MEZ and First Robotics brought ideas – hopes of getting into computer marketing and data harvesting – and that alone put him ahead of many peers.
Some are forced into adult roles early, caring for older or younger family members. Others are called to contribute to the household income, preventing them from dreaming beyond what they already know.
“They don’t think they have options …,” said Pashawn Johnson, Osborn’s principal. “They think, ‘I just want to graduate and work at McDonald’s. I just need some money right now.’”
That cycle repeats if not disrupted. And the MEZ, she said, disrupts by showing students what could be.
Without it … From his vantage point driving the streets of Osborn, Tony Russell has seen where that pathway leads.
“I have this little phrase that I say, especially with the (young people) …,” he said. “Don’t get 40 and frustrated. Because I’ve seen so many that wind up frustrated when people realize ‘Man, I missed these opportunities.’”
A week after the shooting, Dennis is out of the hospital with much to sort out. There is a chance for him to complete his school requirements online. He plans to graduate and pursue college.
There are things Dennis has said before. But the loss of a friend and the inches that separated him from death or paralysis have introduced something new: urgency.
“It was almost gone completely, my whole life …,” Dennis says. “I felt like I didn’t do much in the time that I had … before this happened. It could have been over, you know?
“So now I feel like I want to do something while I’m here.”