How robots are changing students' lives in this at-risk community

Robotics students continue to work toward dreams in face of addiction, poverty

DETROIT – Of course it's important to look to the future, but it’s nearly impossible for Brent Egnor to ignore where his kids have come from and, in some cases, what some are still going through.

Egnor is a technical mentor for the Ypsilanti Grizzly Robotics team.

One team member has a twin brother who's in jail. Others have grown up in poverty and with little to no home structure. Many have dealt firsthand with addiction, depression and overall bad family situations. 

“The whole community is an at-risk community as far as academics and financially,” Egnor said.

Dalton Smith, 16, is just one team member with quite a story of adversity. He grew up bouncing around from house to house in Alabama after his parents divorced when he was 4 years old.

Growing up, his father wasn’t around and his mother struggled with addiction, which had a profound effect on Smith every day.

“My mother had a severe cigarette and caffeine addiction,” Smith said. “Whenever she didn’t have those necessities, she would take it out on me and my sister.”

About five years ago, Smith and his family moved north, to Michigan, where he originally moved in with a family friend of his mother, but that did little to improve problems in the household. 

Eventually, Smith moved in with his grandfather who lived in the area, but enrolling in a school became a big issue. 

“I couldn’t get into two of the alternative (schools) because I didn’t have a middle school record,” he said.

Fortunately for Smith, hope quickly emerged when he found out about a newly created middle college in the district. 

Providing a chance for success

With the closure of the Willow Run auto plant -- which happened in 2010 due to a recession -- unemployment, individuals living below the poverty level and crime all started to rise around the Ypsilanti area.

In the face of declining enrollment and the number of economically disadvantaged families in the community, Ypsilanti Community Schools in 2014 created the Ypsilanti STEMM Middle College, which is housed in the same building as Ypsilanti AC Tech High School. 

The program allows students to learn about STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) and offers dual-enrollment where teens can earn college credits while obtaining a high school diploma.

“Dual enrollment is becoming more common,” Egnor said. “If the student has already achieved some college credits, they are 80 percent more likely to get an associate's or bachelor's (degree). That’s part of our high school curriculum, to get you started in the STEMM Middle College.”

The graduation rate at the high school jumped from 69 percent after the 2013-14 school year, to 97 percent following the 2015-16 school year, according to the college. 

Attendance rates climbed from 84 percent to 92 percent, and suspensions went down from 35 percent to 6 percent in that same time frame, college officials said.

The robotics squad is one component of the Ypsilanti STEMM Middle College, and the team advanced to compete at the FIRST World Championships at Cobo Hall from April 24-27. 

Last year, 11 members of the team traveled to China for two weeks to mentor Chinese teams and participate in a competition. 

Stating the obvious, competing on the same stage as some of the top robotics teams from around the world and traveling to China were thrills, but that is only a small measurement of the impact the program has had on the students.

Members of the Ypsilanti Grizzly Robotics team work on their robot during the FIRST Robotics world championships in Detroit on April 24. Keith Dunlap/GMG

Looking ahead, not behind

Egnor said there are daily challenges he and other team mentors face, which is why they have regularly scheduled one-on-one meetings with students -- to make sure they are taking care of business academically and, more importantly, making sure they are staying strong through situations at home.

“It’s definitely less about robots and more about life skills,” he said.

Being a part of the robotics team and program has helped to transform the lives of students both in the present and for the future. 

In the present, team members can bond with others who have experienced similar struggles, whether it’s building robots or at outside social functions, such as bowling. 

“I can honestly say that all of my team members are my (friends),” Smith said.

Smith, who currently lives with a cousin after his grandfather died in 2017, is an example of a redemption story after he found out about the program and enrolled. The valedictorian of the college’s junior class, Smith has close to a 4.0 grade-point average.

The idea of college is close to becoming a realistic plan, and he hopes to have a career in programming someday.

Smith has certainly come a long way from the days of wondering where he was going to sleep each night. 

But he’s just one example of a life being turned around.

With each passing day and knowledge gained in the program, it’s becoming less and less about where the kids have come from and what they are dealing with. It’s about where they are going and the bright futures ahead.

“Here I am programming a robot and watching it compete in the World Championships,” Smith said. “It’s awesome.”