Students from Detroit explore downtown and careers

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News

Future architects, engineers and designers have been walking the streets of downtown Detroit this fall to gaze at its skyscrapers, get a glimpse into the city’s thriving business culture and get inspired.

Quicken Loans’ Community Investment Fund’s mentoring efforts include the recent “Day of Innovation,” which saw 140 Detroit students touring downtown businesses and trying tech-related projects.

They may only be 11 or 12, but these students from Detroit Public Schools Community District have been embedded in the city’s business culture through a program by the Quicken Loans Community Investment Fund that seeks to open their young eyes to the opportunity that awaits in careers fueled the city’s expanding tech industries.

Laura Grannemann, vice president of the fund, said her organization believes it has a moral imperative to invest in the city’s students.

“We also have this market imperative. Students in schools today will be our workers tomorrow,” Grannemann said. “The idea is to make the downtown accessible and whet their appetite to work with the company.”

The fund has spent about $120 million in seven years on programs in education, supporting and creating public spaces, supporting entrepreneurs and home ownership.

It has 17,000 company employees who work as mentors 140,000 hours a year in multiple programs, including a recent “Day of Innovation,” which had about 140 DPSCD students roaming the downtown area one day this past week to experience established business spaces and refurbished buildings and later try their hand at a few STEM-related (science, technology, engineering and math) projects.

The fund aims to bring down all 3,000 sixth-graders from the district with sessions in the fall and spring.

At The Robot Garage, co-founder Sarah Jacobs helps Abraham Popa, 11, build an LED flashlight, providing a hands-on experience that could someday lead to a career in science or technology.

The Robot Garage is a partner in the program, and its staff teaches the sixth-graders how to build their own LED flashlights, providing a hands-on experience that could someday lead to a career in science or technology. At a session with Arts and Scraps, students constructed skyscraper prototypes from leftover materials as instructors asked them to consider what architects would do to construct such buildings.

In both sessions, educators and mentors encourage the children to think the steps out and ask what is needed to make a successful project. Teacher Tara Sutphen watched as her students from Clippert Academy used their fingers to pick up tiny pieces from a tray set up the Robot Garage staff which contained all the materials needed to make a circuit flashlight: lithium battery, Plexiglas pieces, an o-ring, key chain link, an LED light, a nylon washer and copper tape.

“This is something they don’t get a lot of exposure to in class. It’s awesome they are here,” Sutphen said.

Beyonce Gutierrez worked through all eight steps, following instructions on a tray until the final step when she pushed the Plexiglas together and the light went off. The sixth-grader at Clippert said she is thinking about becoming an engineer but wasn’t sure what kind. The tour was eye-opening.

“It’s so pretty down here,” she said.

Students check out the old vault in the Chrysler House basement as part of their tour of downtown business spaces.

Mentor and volunteer Jassmine Parks said taking the kids downtown and watching them get their hands on STEM activities shows them how skills apply to careers.

“It exposes students to what makes the basics of engineering and to the field at a young age,” Parks said. “I love this program.”

Sarah Jacobs, co-founder of the Robot Garage, said teachers are given books to take back to the classroom to continue the conversation about technology, careers and the downtown.

“We show the kids the Spirit of Detroit, and many are familiar with the sphere of light in one hand but don’t realize there is a family in the other hand,” Jacobs says. “We think this represents the idea that we are all part of Detroit’s family and all part of what creates the ideas that light up our city.”