How One Teacher Founded a Whole New High School Inspired by FIRST

Sep 27, 2017 Interview by Robyn D. Shulman, founder and senior editor, EdNews Daily




Grizzly Robotics Team

Editor’s Note: Scott Heister, an engineering and physics teacher, has taught in the Ypsilanti, Michigan, community for the past 25 years and has mentored FIRST teams for 19 years. When his school district restructured a few years ago, Heister pushed for a new school built around principles of FIRST, inspired by the engagement he saw in his students during the robotics season. The result is the innovative, dual-enrollment Ypsilanti STEMM Middle College and Grizzly Robotics, Ypsilanti’s robust after-school program that acts as a safe haven for students and inspired positive transformations in a school district where more than 70 percent of students are from economically disadvantaged families. The success of Ypsilanti STEMM Middle College and Grizzly Robotics is the subject of a new FIRST case study, “A New Type of School Teaches Skills for the Future.”

View Case Study


Recently, EdNews Daily published an interview with Heister about how he was able to get institutional buy-in for this new program and about lessons learned. Read the interview below.

Interview with Scott Heister, Academic Director, Ypsilanti STEMM Middle College

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?Scott Heister
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 percent 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 percent; and today our graduation rate is now 97 percent. The first year we ran the middle college, our average daily attendance was 85 percent; the average daily attendance today is 92 percent. We have gone from a suspension rate of greater than 35 percent to just 3 percent, and our science proficiency rates have increased from 11 percent to 48 percent.

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 percent 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.

Some examples:

  • 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?Grizzly Robotics students
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 percent 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 Competition 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.

Read more about this school of the future, and the students Heister has inspired.

Robyn D. Shulman, M.Ed., is the founder and senior editor of EDNews Daily, which interviews and works with education startups, teachers, advocates, Shark Tank winners, entrepreneurs, innovators, nonprofits, and education game-changers. She is also the Senior Editor, Thought-Leadership at 51Talk and a contributing writer at Forbes and The Next Web.

Read more about how FIRST supports educators by engaging students in STEM learning and preparing them for the future. FIRST programs offer hands-on fun while cleverly helping kids transfer classroom concepts to real-world applications.

If you have an inspiring story or piece of wisdom that you’ve picked up through your experiences in the FIRST community, please reach out to us at and inquire about becoming a guest contributor for Inspire.
Back to Blog