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#OTGYpsi: Ypsilanti Township nonprofit offers STEM resources for youth


Concentrate Ann Arbor

Sarah Rigg's Feature Article: From 3-D printing to podcast studio, Ypsi Township nonprofit offers STEM resources for youth


uniteSTEM on Facebook


David Fair: This is 89 one WEMU, and welcome to another edition of On the Ground Ypsilanti. It's our weekly look at the people, organizations, and businesses that are working in solution-oriented ways to enhance quality of life in Ypsilanti. Our content partner is Concentrate Media, and Sarah Rigg serves as its On the Ground Ypsi project manager, and thank you for stopping by again today, Sarah.

Sarah Rigg: Thanks for having me.

David Fair: Now, in the article you have published today, you focused on an innovative program called uniteSTEM. Now, give me an overview of what it is and what led you to their door.

Sarah Rigg: They're a local nonprofit based out of Ypsilanti Township that is aiming to make STEM--so that's science, technology, engineering and math-type fields--more accessible to everyone, starting with youth. But they also have some programing for adults as well.

David Fair: And joining us by phone is one of the co-founders of uniteSTEM. Frank Norton, thanks for being here, and welcome to WEMU.

Frank Norton: I thank you for having me. It's great to be here.

David Fair: Now, uniteSTEM is a few years old now, if I'm correct, but, obviously, this is not your first foray into STEM programming. You were former affiliate director for Project Lead the Way Michigan, which is a nonprofit developing STEM curriculum for K-through-12 schools. What about that prior experience informed your decision to take it in a bit of a different direction?

Frank Norton: So, what I got to experience...Project Lead the Way was a great program. And what I came to learn by working with the teachers and districts and students across the state was that there was another level of access that was needed, and it was to provide some more access and flexibility for students who didn't quite have the academic background to meet the needs for applied STEM education. So, what we wanted to do was create programs and access that could bring kids in and brings youth, young adults, families, whoever, in at any age and introduce them to the topics and help them get to where and learn the skills they wanted to learn to engage with all of these high end technologies that are out there that they may not have seen when they were in school or may not have had access to.

David Fair: How many kids and what grades are you working with right now?

Frank Norton: So, we work with mainly six through 12th graders and some out of school-age adults. We have, right now, we have mainly seventh, eighth, and some high school students right now.

David Fair: And do they come from all districts throughout the county, or are you working specifically with charter school students right now?

Frank Norton: So, we work with numerous different students from across the county, but we have some special programs that we do with a charter school network where we host students on site to have an integrated type program for their online students. So, currently, we work with a school called G-E-E Prepartory, and their online students come in, and they do their online part of their curriculum on our computers in the shop. And then, we have an integrated course in the afternoon where we work on special projects. Kids will develop a podcast. They might build a robot. We have one student who's going to be doing a video series for the robotics company to demonstrate how to assemble their robot as mini.

David Fair: Now, that sounds exactly like something that would really pique kids' interest. Sarah, did you have the opportunity to talk with any of the kids who are participating in the program about what they're getting out of their experience at uniteSTEM?

Sarah Rigg: I did. I was able to talk to a young lady who'd been there for several years and a young man who'd only been around for a few weeks. So, the young man, DeShawn, was really interested in robotics. He'd built some drones and some robots, and he's the one that they were going to be taping him, putting them together as a tutorial for other kids. And then, I talked to a young woman named Luna, who's really interested in all things insects--beetles, moths, all that sort of thing. And she draws them and sometimes in realistic ways and sometimes, you know, as little cartoon bugs. But she's hoping to start a podcast featuring a bug of the week.

David Fair: I'd love that. I actually want to see all that. On the ground Ypsi continues on 89 one WEMU with Concentrate Media project manager Sarah Rigg. Our guest today is Frank Norton. He is one of the co-founders of uniteSTEM. Now, Frank, your facility is over on Airport Industrial Drive. Paint me a word picture of what I would encounter were I to walk through the building.

Frank Norton: Well, the nondescript nature of it kind of hides what's in there. You come inside and there, our main front door, and the first thing you're going to see is what we consider our living room. We have a couch and a couple of chairs and a TV and bookcases and an electric fireplace. And the whole goal was we want everyone to know when they come in the door that they're family and that we want everyone to be a community and to be here for one another. Once you walk through there, you're going to see lots of pictures and signs and a lecture room and a couple other nonprofits who operate out of our space. And then, once you get into the back main lab, you'll see an open classroom, computer labs, stations, a design lab for clothing, CNC machining shop, 3D printers, laser cutter, and more robots than you know what to do with.

David Fair: That sounds absolutely fascinating. And, as you mentioned, the non-descript nature on the outside belies what is to be found on the inside. As we consider future employment opportunities, 3D printers, anything that will help in artificial intelligence, and the construct and operation of the so-called metaverse is going to be huge, do you find you have to stimulate the interest in the students you're working with, or do they come with that kind of as a preexisting condition and you're just supporting those interests?

Frank Norton: So, it's a little bit of both. It's really interesting. The kids are extraordinarily creative, and they come up with ideas and it's like, "Oh yeah, we can do that. We can do that here." And then, out comes a kit, out comes a vision system, out comes the VR system. And then, they just start digging into it. It's really incredible. DeShawn, for instance, within the first three days of him coming to school, he found probably one of the most difficult robotics kits that we have and took about a week to assemble it. Did it on his own. There is no limit to what our kids can do.

David Fair: There's no way I could accomplish that in a week. What about you, Frank?

Frank Norton: I've built that one before. And, actually, the first time it took me a little longer than my first time around.

David Fair: I love when kids take to it like that. That's fantastic. Once again, you're listening to 89 one WEMU, and we're talking with Concentrate Media's On the Ground Ypsi project manager Sarah Rigg and a co-founder of Ypsilanti-based uniteSTEM. Frank Norton. Frank, without question, access to good STEM programs lacks in all too many public educational institutions. Not all, but many. And those in the creative industries will tell you that not including the arts and making it a STEAM program could take away future opportunities for those who wish to serve. Do you envision uniteSTEM becoming uniteSTEAM at some point, or is that already included in the programing you're offering?

Frank Norton: So, that's a wonderful question. So, arts is a foundational element of all of our work, and it's really comes down to the nature of acronyms in lettering. We chose STEM because that is what the focus of our work is: science, technology, engineering and math. Art is a central component. Art and creativity is the foundation of our work. It's what allows us to imagine what something could be. So, to try to divorce or separate art from STEM is not possible. It is always considered, whether you're sketching, designing, thinking about things in three dimensions, thinking about things in an entirely new way, imagining something outside of a box. Art is inherently there and begins there. There is no separation.

David Fair: So, I'm going to take it a little bit further down that line. Sarah, when you were talking with Frank to write this article, he said to you, and I'm going to quote here, "Education at its heart is an adventure." Did uniteSTEM feel like an adventure to you?

Sarah Rigg: It did. I got the tour with Frank's co-founder Andrea Pisani, and every room was something different. This room had, you know, like, a chassis from some kind of vehicle that they were going to turn into a virtual reality driving game. And I'd step into another room, and the kids could print out their own T-shirts or mugs to support any kind of entrepreneurial venture that they were going on. So, yeah, definitely. Just even walking around the building and getting the tour felt like an adventure.

David Fair: And, Frank, I get the impression that this feels like a really good start to you, but that the adventure is going to take you further down the line and bring new programs to light, something you want to call URise for one. So, where does the adventure lead uniteSTEM in the next 12 to 18 months?

Frank Norton: Well, we want to expand our programing significantly. URise is a pre-apprenticeship program that we want to get launched that will help with youth aged 16 to 24 to learn those skills they might not have picked up, and they want to get into an apprenticeship program or back into college. So, that program is specifically meant to take them through a series, to introduce them to a multitude of career fields: construction, manufacturing, robotics, and to give them a foundation to be able to move on to that next level, as well as those job training skills. We're also looking to expand. I'm a big fan as a former student, or actually current student, at Eastern. I'm a big fan of the College of Engineering and Technology. So, we're always looking at ways to help move our students on to EMU's colleges there and help to expand those programs and expand horizons in terms of where they can go in life. [00:10:02][56.2]

David Fair: Absolutely. Sounds like an adventure. And I look forward to finding out where the adventure will take us moving forward. Frank, thanks so much for the time today. I really appreciate it.

Frank Norton: Thank you very much for your time.

David Fair: That is Frank Norton. He is one of the co-founders of uniteSTEM, and he's been our guest on On the Ground Ypsi. Our content partner for this weekly feature is Concentrate Media, and its On the Ground Ypsi project manager, Sarah Rigg. And, Sarah, thank you so much for the time today, and I look forward to your next visit.

Sarah Rigg: Thanks. Good to see you, David.

David Fair: You can find Sarah's article in full on their website, and you can get there by clicking the link on our OTGYpsi web post at WEMU dot org. I'm David Fair, and this is 89 one WEMU FM and WEMU HD one Ypsilanti.

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Contact David: dfair@emich.edu
Sarah has been involved in journalism since she began producing a one-page photocopied neighborhood "newspaper" in grade school, later reporting for and then editing her high school paper. She has worked on staff at Heritage Newspapers and the (now defunct) Ann Arbor Business Review and has written as a freelancer for various publications ranging from The Crazy Wisdom Journal to the News-Herald to AnnArbor.com. She began writing for Concentrate in February 2017.
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