INSPIRATION IS EVERWHERE

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Teacher inspires a culture change through high school robotics and crowdfunding

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Monique Dituri

FIRST Robotics Competition Mentor & STEM Teacher, Clifton High School, NJ

Monique Dituri, a STEM teacher and robotics team mentor at Clifton High School in New Jersey, has galvanized her school to raise over $775,000 through crowdfunding on DonorsChoose.org. Through her dedication to her students and getting them resources they need to realize their full potential, Dituri is leading a culture change in her community to one where STEM is as celebrated as athletics and more young people have access to life-changing STEM programs like FIRST®.

A typical afterschool meeting of the Mechanical Mustangs, Clifton High School’s FIRST® Robotics Competition team, begins with a thank you note. Monique Dituri, a STEM teacher at the New Jersey high school and the robotics team’s lead mentor, passes out blank cards to students as they enter the room and shares the name of a recent donor. By graduation, the students will have written hundreds.

After they write thank you cards and share team business, students break out into groups. One group grabs lap tops and rocker seats – donated – to practice coding. Another group gathers supplies – also donated – to decorate homecoming game banners. A third prepares to practice milling at the “warehouse,” a nearby garage space filled with machining equipment and tools – all donated.

Many of the team’s resources – and the volume of thank you cards they write – are a result of donations made through DonorsChoose.org, a crowdfunding platform for public educators in the United States. In crowdfunding, people donate small amounts through a website and social media; sometimes, their donations are matched by corporate or charitable sponsors.

The Mechanical Mustangs are a FIRST Robotics Competition team from Clifton High School.

The Mechanical Mustangs are a FIRST Robotics Competition team from Clifton High School.

In just a few years, Dituri and her Clifton High School colleagues have raised over $775,000 through DonorsChoose.org and used those donations to change the lives of their students and the culture of the school. Dituri has also helped other teachers in her community and around the country grow robotics STEM programs through the platform. In 2018, she was named a DonorsChoose.org National Teacher Ambassador.  

"More than a hundred thousand teachers have used DonorsChoose.org to request STEM learning resources and other materials they need to give their students a great education,” said Charles Best, founder and CEO of DonorsChoose.org. “Monique Dituri has gone above and beyond to help her colleagues and community tap into funding as well. We’re proud to call her a DonorsChoose.org Teacher Ambassador.”

Learn about a special DonorsChoose.org  funding opportunity for robotics programs.

A game-changer comes to Clifton

Dituri had a greater mission for the Mechanical Mustangs: She wanted to change the culture at Clifton High School so the robotics team was as much a priority as the sports teams.

When Monique Dituri was hired in 2005 as a chemistry teacher at Montclair High School, located in a wealthy New Jersey suburb, Dituri’s colleagues asked her to mentor the school’s FIRST team, hoping she could encourage more girls to join the robotics team. “I went to a post-season FIRST event with the team, and I was hooked,” she said.

A few years later, a Montclair parent encouraged his alma mater – nearby Clifton High School – to start a FIRST Robotics Competition team. At Clifton, the majority of students are on free or reduced-rate lunch. One of the largest high schools in New Jersey, the school supports a diverse population of over 3,000 students.

Clifton administrators recruited Dituri to join the high school faculty and bring the proven impact of FIRST programs to students. “When someone says, ‘We need you; please come here,’ you can’t say no to a job like that,” Dituri said.

Members of the Mustangs test their robot in the team’s pit at the 2018 FIRST Championship in Houston.

Members of the Mustangs test their robot in the team’s pit at the 2018 FIRST Championship in Houston.

The school gave Dituri a budget that would cover critical expenses like in-state bus travel. As a member of the Montclair Engineering Society, Dituri recruited additional mentors. But Dituri had a greater mission for the Mechanical Mustangs: She wanted to change the culture at Clifton High School so the robotics team was as much a priority as the sports teams. The team, inspired by the mission of FIRST, also aimed to spread an appreciation of STEM throughout the Clifton community. To reach that level of impact, her students needed tools – both hard and soft. They need opportunities to travel and provide outreach. The Mustangs needed a fundraising plan.

A fellow teacher told Dituri about DonorsChoose.org, which makes it easy for teachers to create classroom project requests that are fulfilled by generous citizen donors, corporations and foundations. “Immediately, a light bulb went off. I realized this is the most amazing way to fundraise in the universe,” Dituri said.

Teacher builds a crowdfunding strategy

To get started, Dituri posted small projects in need of funding to support the team and her students. She kept building on her momentum, using her knowledge of the platform to help other teachers and students at Clifton. Dituri built a loyal base of individual donors who were able to give $5-50 to various projects. When match offers are available, she challenges her students to ask friends and family to donate $10, which is then doubled or sometimes tripled by a match funder. Dituri’s projects have been funded by News Corp, Tom’s of Maine, 3M, Born This Way Foundation, Dick’s Sporting Goods Foundation, Charles Schwab, and more.

She’s also helped several colleagues get started on the platform, and together they’ve raised more than $775,000 (as of October 2018) for Clifton High School. “Fundraising has such a terrible stigma, and it shouldn’t,” Dituri said. “I’ve been trying to teach my students, with DonorsChoose.org, that it’s OK to ask people for what we need to accomplish our goals.”

Members of the Mechanical Mustangs sit in rockers, a DonorsChoose.org donation.

Members of the Mechanical Mustangs sit in rockers, a DonorsChoose.org donation.

“There’s always that fear that you are about to get rejected when you ask,” said Tam, who has participated on FIRST teams since middle school. “But now, because of our FIRST experience, we know that only helps build character.”

Through DonorsChoose.org, Dituri has fundraised for robot parts, powerful lap tops for computer-aided design (CAD), team shirts, 3-D printers, professional development for teachers, community outreach projects, tournament fees, furniture, SAT prep for students, and much, much more. 

Thanks to crowdfunding, Dituri is also able to budget meals for her team during the “build season,” when students meet frequently for long hours to design and build a robot in preparation for competition, and to help reduce the travel cost burden on families for out-of-state tournaments.

An inclusive, nurturing environment for exploration

“Ms. Dituri has made me a better person.”

Dituri’s efforts are paying off for the culture change she envisioned, beginning with the success of the team itself. In the fall of 2017, 50 freshman students got involved with the Mechanical Mustangs. The team, which Dituri describes as an “eternal family,” attracts a diverse group of students from different socioeconomic, academic, and cultural backgrounds. Clifton is a popular community for newly immigrated families; some students primarily speak Spanish, Arabic, and Polish. At team meetings, Dituri makes sure the new students have fluent peers to communicate with. “Ms. Dituri accepts everyone and says, ‘We’ll find a place for you,’” said Principal Michael Doktor.

That acceptance seeps into the ethos of the team, according to students. “Ms. Dituri tries to make sure we understand that no matter what, you should respect the person and try to understand where they are coming from,” Tam said.

FIRST Alumni from the team have received more than $50,000 in college scholarships through the FIRST Scholarship Program and discovered STEM careers. Dituri’s students also speak enthusiastically about the positive impact she has on their lives.

Kim says Dituri went out of her way to get her tutoring help in math when she was struggling. Sarai, who is interested in a career in a mechanical field, had planned to enroll in regular classes for her senior year until Dituri recommended her for dual enrollment courses so she could get college credits. Tam, who is interested in studying interior design after learning about design principles through FIRST, credits Dituri with helping her grow from a timid freshman to a more self-confident senior: “Ms. Dituri has made me a better person.”

Sarai and Kim show the Mustang’s 2017 robot during a tour of the team’s build space.

Sarai and Kim show the Mustang’s 2017 robot during a tour of the team’s build space.

Well before graduating, her students are turning that inspiration into action. Students from the FIRST team, led by Sarai, created a student-led project on DonorsChoose.org around mental health awareness. With funding from the Born This Way Foundation, they created a photobooth experience where over 150 students of various backgrounds used emoji signs to share their emotions. Sarai’s story was featured on Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls.

FIRST widens students’ perspectives

It’s important to Dituri that her students get the opportunity to travel for FIRST tournaments, including FIRST Championship. “Many of my students were not born in the United States, so they’ve only traveled from their home country to Clifton. My students look forward to FIRST trips all year,” she said. On these trips, students experience the thrill of competition, go sightseeing, cook for each other, and get to know other teams – from New York and Virginia to Brazil and Australia.

Experiencing multicultural FIRST events is a reminder to students like Tam to be open to new connections and friendships. “FIRST helps you realize there’s more to life. You can only get so far, just being in your own little circle. But when you get to know what’s outside of it, there are infinite possibilities,” she said.

To get those travel opportunities, the team does a lot of local fundraising. “Through the methods we’ve learned on DonorsChoose.org – we immediately thank, and then we thank again several weeks later – my students have been able to learn more about how to fundraise and how to ask people for money in a way that’s very polite and respectful,” Dituri said.

Teacher redefines the “Mustang”

"Our robotics team is a big aspect of what we have to offer here academically.”

Dituri has changed what it means to be a Mustang at Clifton High School and made the robotics team part of the fabric of the school, according to administrators and alumni. Her FIRST team is also an important draw for incoming parents. “Our robotics team is a big aspect of what we have to offer here academically,” Principal Doktor said.

An entire trophy case at the school is dedicated to the Mechanical Mustangs, showcasing team trophies, certificates, photos, robot parts, and other mementos of accomplishment. Student wear their team shirts with pride at school events like football games and theatrical shows. The Mechanical Mustangs also led the push to make academic teams eligible for varsity letters. “Robotics has had a huge impact. Students are not embarrassed to be in these types of clubs at our school anymore,” Doktor said.

A display case devoted to the Mechanical Mustangs robotics team is prominent in Clifton High School.

A display case devoted to the Mechanical Mustangs robotics team is prominent in Clifton High School.

Dituri has helped other teachers and teams fundraise through DonorsChoose.org, spreading goodwill throughout the halls. “As teachers, we’ve all been working on creating this culture where athletics is not the only thing that’s important,” Dituri said.

Clifton High School is building a STEM academy, adding five new sections of engineering classes in 2017. Dituri now teaches intro to engineering classes with electronics and robotics focuses and will soon add a second-year robotics class. “FIRST made that transition possible for Clifton,” Dituri said.

A STEM movement spreads through Clifton

Thanks to the power of crowdfunding and Dituri’s influence, the Mechanical Mustangs have been able to spread their impact throughout the Clifton community.

In 2017, the Mustangs started 50 FIRST® LEGO® League Jr. teams through a DonorsChoose.org project partially funded by News Corp. During a six-week summer camp, over 300 students from 13 Clifton elementary schools learned simple coding techniques and teamwork skills using LEGO elements and motorized parts to build a model. Clifton teachers are now anxious to bring FIRST LEGO League Jr. into their classrooms.

The Mechanical Mustangs participate in the Clifton Bicentennial Parade on their team-built float.

The Mechanical Mustangs participate in the Clifton Bicentennial Parade on their team-built float.

Dituri says being part of the robotics team has given her students opportunities to show leadership in their community. The Mustangs host an annual FIRST® LEGO® League event in Clifton and built a mechanical float for Clifton’s recent Centennial Parade. “The community is proud of us for being a robotics team here in town and doing so well,” Kim said.

Crowdfunding: A FIRST fundraising frontier

With an engaged virtual community, teams are no longer defined by their parent body or local community.

Today, Dituri’s impact is spreading throughout the country. She has helped coordinate match funding opportunities with FIRST, its sponsors, and DonorsChoose.org. She’s also been a resource for other U.S. educators starting FIRST programs through the platform.

Crowdfunding is an important strategy to help robotics teams achieve their goals, and there are many platforms available to them. With an engaged virtual community, teams are no longer defined by their parent body or local community. It expands their “donor base” with more individuals who want to give. Plus, students learn critical life skills, including financial management and gratitude.

The Mustangs are grateful for their donors, and they’re even more appreciative of Dituri’s dedication to them as a teacher and FIRST mentor. Student Angel leads strategy and data analysis for the team, which also includes his younger sister Bella. “Our parents never got to go to college. We’ve always had money troubles,” Angel said. “If it wasn’t for Ms. Dituri, I wouldn’t understand how good I am at strategy, planning, and managing. I wouldn’t be able to see my potential.”

Learn about a special DonorsChoose.org  funding opportunity for robotics programs.
 

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