How One Teacher Founded A Whole New High School-Inspired by FIRST Robotics
Scott Heister, an engineering and physics teacher, began mentoring his high school’s FIRST Robotics Competition team in his home state of Michigan 19 years ago. Since then, the robotics program has overcome their fair share of obstacles, including nearby factories shutting and decreased funding for their program, while working hard to transform culture in their school and build leaders in STEM.
Grizzly Robotics, the name the team now goes by, has since changed the face of education in their community of Ypsilanti, Michigan, a city where violence, drugs, and crime are all too common.
The Grizzly Robotics team acts as a safe haven for Heister’s students and has inspired positive transformations. Being a part of the robotics team has helped these young people discover and develop new interests, gain self-confidence, and become engaged in their own learning and success.
In 2013, because of decreasing enrollment, increasing debt and low academic success, Willow Run School, Grizzly Robotics’ home base, and Ypsilanti Schools, a nearby district, merged.
Inspired by the tenets of FIRST, Scott Heister pushed for the newly formed district to redesign and build a school around the principles of FIRST. He was successful, and the Ypsilanti STEMM Middle College was born. In the four years since the school opened its doors, they have seen tremendous success in increased graduation rates, decreased suspension rates, and college attrition; the school’s graduation rate has increased from 69% to 97%, and their daily attendance rate has increased from 85% percent to 92%.
Interview with Scott Heister
Heister sat down to answer a few questions about how he was able to get institutional buy-in for a new program like this, and lessons learned on the journey.
Q: How did you come up with the idea to use your FIRST Robotics Competition team as a model to design an entire school?
We ran a FIRST team for years, and recognized that our robotics kids came to us and they were engaged – they worked harder on robotics than in the classroom, and actually cared about what they were doing. We had students that would come to us with failing grades, but who worked incredibly hard during the robotics season. But then they would start failing again after the season was over.
I’ve heard the founder of FIRST, Dean Kamen, say this, but I realized as well: it really isn’t about the robots, it’s not about the competitions, it’s about getting the students to be engaged and present. When students are engaged and present in the classroom, they become almost partners with the teacher. We utilized this realization to build our school.
Q: Your school is a middle college – what is the difference between a middle college and a typical high school?
A middle college blurs the lines between a traditional high school and college. Students come to us their freshman year, they’re with us for five years and then graduate with a college certification, up to 84 credits and an associate’s degree. We were so bent on developing a middle college with this new school because data showed us that students who earn 15 college credits while in high school are 80% more likely to graduate college with a degree.
Q: You say that you’ve seen success with this model; can you share any more details?
When Willow Run and Ypsilanti merged, the combined graduation rate was 69%; and today our graduation rate is now 97%. The first year we ran the middle college, our average daily attendance was 85%; the average daily attendance today is 92%. We have gone from a suspension rate of greater than 35% to just 3%, and our science proficiency rates have increased from 11% to 48%.
I’ve had people come to me saying that it must be easier working at a middle college than a traditional high school, assuming that the students are prepared, they’re ready to come to school, they’re engaged and so on, but they were wrong. Statistics show that 83% of our juniors and seniors who came in as freshman were not proficient in science.
Q: Beyond the teaching model of a hands-on, robotics-heavy, curriculum, are there any other factors that you think play a role in your school’s success?
Two major factors come to mind. First, is the dedicated staff that really are more like mentors than teachers to our students. I also think that part of our success a direct correlation of our low staff turnover rates.
In an urban setting, students are successful and come to school when they form relationships with adults, and it’s hard to develop these relationships when there is a new adult in front of them each year. I think we can keep our staff here for a combination of reasons; in part, it is the relationships they form with the students, the other factor is that we are a small staff, so we have become really close. When you’re a group of nine, it isn’t quite as hard to develop relationships with each other.
Second is the way we set up our class schedules. It is similar to the NewTech model in that our work in different classrooms complement each other, but it differs in that we aren’t in the same physical space. For example, I teach physics, when the manufacturing teacher is having the students build hydraulic arms, I teach about pressure and volume work in physics. We are a close staff that collaborates and communicates.
Q: How were you able to get institutional buy-in for modeling a school after a robotics program?
I think this really is about leveraging the FIRST model of developing strong community and business partners. We are almost fanatical about getting our community involved with what we do.
- Regularly addressing our school board
- Having students do demonstrations or showcase presentations they’ve created for the FIRST Championship
- Having the students at our school run two open houses per year where we invite the community, prospective parents, students and supporting businesses
- Hosting a “Thank You” dinner event where we invite state and national senators, representatives, local dignitaries, school board members, teachers, administrators, and all of our monetary and non-monetary sponsors
- Going out to local businesses and community organizations to present
- Working with our township to run a youth robotics camp, which is becoming a great recruitment tool.
We maintain relationships with our national congressional senators and representatives, and we yearly send students to Washington D.C. to develop and nurture those relationships.
Locally, we attend parades and public events at our library and have become a presence around the community. Once the community backs you and sees the impact of your efforts that translates to institutional support.
Q: Are there any alumni that particularly stand out to you as examples of the success your school has been able to achieve?
There are many stories to share. I have alumni who are doing everything from working in the State Senate as a legislative assistant, working in the business field, or in computer science.
The skills they learn through robotics are so translatable; it really isn’t about the robots.
My students learn that adults can be resources and they aren’t afraid to reach out to adults. By the time my kids are juniors, about 90% had taken at least one college class and when they graduate they are doing well in college because they aren’t afraid to come back and ask for help.
One current student that comes to mind, his dad died a year ago on his birthday, and he was having a very difficult time; he was the most suspended student in our school. This year, he is our FIRST Robotics team’s lead machinist and working in partnership with the University of Michigan on a CubeSat Satellite project to celebrate their 200th bicentennial.
Just this past spring break, he worked every single day over his vacation so that he could finish in time. His GPA is now up now to over a 3.0. It’s remarkable to see a student go from being suspended from school so often, to choosing to spend their school vacation in the classroom.
The number of students who walk through our doors who are homeless, behind grade levels, and think they are broken – it’s staggering.
I believe we are truly changing the world, one life at a time.
Teachers: If you’re interested in starting a team or learning more about FIRST visit: here.
Mr. Heister grew up in Flint, Michigan – graduated with a BS in Biology / Minor in Physics from the University of Michigan, Flint in 1990. He received a Master of Arts Degree in Teaching from Marygrove College in Detroit in 2002. In1999 he was named the Michigan Science Teacher’s Association High School Science Teacher of the Year, and has been honored as Teacher of the Year by The University of Michigan Chapter of Sigma Xi (2012), Detroit Mercy (1997 & 1998) and Lawrence Technological University (2012). He has taught in the Ypsilanti community for the past 25 years, and has been the Lead Mentor for the Award Winning FIRST Robotics Program since 2004.