Detroit Mercy’s iDRAW program will prepare young people for STEM careers

February 27, 2019

Students works on a FIRST Robotics project at Detroit Mercy.Convincing young people to consider a career in math and science can be challenging. Students in a classroom setting don’t necessarily get to experience how fun and exciting science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields can be.

University of Detroit Mercy’s new iDRAW (innovating Detroit’s Robotics Agile Workforce) program uses robotics as the primary theme to show students the fun in STEM. The elements of study essential to the field of robotics serve as core components to STEM careers.

“Sometimes math and science are abstract, it’s hard, it’s on paper and it’s not very exciting, but robotics are math and science coming to life,” said Richard Hill, assistant dean for Research & External Initiatives for Detroit Mercy’s College of Engineering & Science. “In robotics, you can see something move and it does something cool.

“As a part of any robotics competition, the robots usually have to pick something up and move it to another location or they have to push another robot out of the way, different things like that. Robots and video games, as an engineer I understand those things are cool to a high-school kid.”

The objective of iDRAW is to reduce barriers and prepare at-risk youth for entry into STEM fields. It builds on existing, successful partnerships and programs to provide multiple career pathways into high-demand professions.

According to recent research, by 2024 there will be 811,055 high-demand career openings in Michigan. Many of these will be in STEM fields. In addition, significant portions of Michigan’s population face barriers to participation in STEM careers. These underrepresented populations represent significant untapped potential.

Through iDRAW, Detroit Mercy and project partners have the ability to begin tapping these potential students and help them engage in STEM related disciplines and careers.

“There are not enough engineering students, there are not enough students in the STEM pipeline and we can’t just sit back and wait for them to appear,” Hill said. “We have to go out and do more to facilitate student interest in developing the skills to enter these fields.”

iDRAW has partnered with area high schools, FIRST Robotics, the Detroit Hispanic Development Corporation (DHDC) and corporate partners to help achieve its primary objective.

Melvindale High School and Detroit Cesar Chavez Academy are the first two schools iDRAW has partnered with and will begin offering courses at the two schools in the fall.

“They are schools where their students face challenges, but they’ve had some good success despite those challenges,” Hill said. “They perform well academically with respect to comparable schools. And they have a good commitment to engineering. Both schools have good FIRST Robotics teams, good extra curricular activities and they’ve had success in sending kids to college in these fields. That is big.”

Courses will initially be taught by college instructors with support from college student teaching assistants and a full-time administrator. During the process, high school teachers will receive training to take over responsibility for the courses, which will greatly reduce the long-term need for external support.

iDRAW will roll out a new course each semester for the next six high school semesters with the goal of offering all six courses at each school.

“The idea is to train up the high school teacher,” Hill said. “The first time there is college instructor there, the second time it’s primarily the high school teacher. We build up the infrastructure, the knowledge base in the school so they can take it over.”

Students work on a FIRST Robotics project at Detroit Mercy.The courses will lead to stackable badges and industry-recognized credentials. Some of the courses will qualify for dual-enrollment credit at Detroit Mercy and Henry Ford College.

“We want a lot of them to go to college, but that’s not the only path,” Hill said. “Some of them will take other routes like a two-year degree or maybe skilled trades.”

The iDRAW program is funded by the State of Michigan’s Marshall Plan for Talent Innovation Grant. Detroit Mercy’s College of Engineering & Science is helping lead the Detroit Robotics Consortium, which received a grant of $653,000 from the Marshall Plan.

“The Marshall Plan for Talent will assist our College in building a network of support and opportunities for students and high school teachers to provide pathways for students to STEM careers,” said Katy Snyder, dean of Detroit Mercy’s College of Engineering & Science.

The consortium features several corporate partners, including General Motors, DTE Energy, Ideal Group and FANUC. Corporate partners have committed to supply funding, mentors, training and hiring students out of the program.

“They’ve made a big commitment in terms of providing mentors and advisors, but they’ve also committed to hiring students out of the program for internships and full-time positions,” Hill said. “I think that’s pretty cool and pretty unique.”

iDRAW has also partnered with DHDC and its Robotics Engineering Center of Detroit (RECD) program.

DHDC offers after-school and summer programs to engage youth from fourth to 12th grades in STEM activities, including serving as the build site for the RECD’s 10 FIRST Robotics teams. Over 150 high school students currently participate in the RECD program.

“DHDC does a lot in the community,” Hill said. “A student can’t be successful in school if they are hungry or they’re homeless or having other issues. They have programming that helps with some of these social needs, some of these external needs, so they can better focus on academics.”

FIRST Robotics is a great recruiting tool for iDRAW and partnering with the RECD program helps reach more students.

“A lot of students like the competition of FIRST Robotics,” Hill said. “The hope is that robotics is motivating. It’s an application where we can build up their core-required skills. Their ability to do math and communicate and do it in the context of something they enjoy is motivating for them.

“Different technical skills are used as part of the robotics projects so they might do some drafting or computer-aided design (CAD) for the chassis of the robot, they might do some programming of the robot, they might have to do some wiring and dealing with the electronics. It’s a direct application of technical skills that could be a career pathway.”

The iDRAW program is loosely patterned after the successful IUPUI (Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis) iDEW (informatics Diversity Enhanced Workforce) program.

The iDEW program has grown from offering three courses in 2015 to 24 and has reached 613 students in eight schools. Currently 93 percent of graduating seniors are enrolled in or planning to attend a two- or four-year degree program with 78 percent indicating an interest in pursuing a career in IT.

The iDRAW program will also be a formal member of the regional iDEW network.

“We are working with them primarily because of their success,” Hill said. “I feel like we were heading there on our own so it was just serendipitous that we got in contact with them.”

Programs like iDRAW are critical to closing the gap between the number of career openings in STEM fields and the number of qualified candidates.

iDRAW’s ambitious goals are that more than 200 students will earn recognition as official iDRAW graduates during the initial five-year period and upon high school graduation, 75 percent of iDRAW graduates will immediately enter college in a STEM field or will be employed in a STEM occupation.

“The goal is to be cumulative,” Hill said. “It’s not that they only do FIRST Robotics, it’s not that they only take this class. The hope is they do four or five of these things. They take three different classes, they do FIRST Robotics, they do a summer camp, they do an internship. Just because a lot of these students face a lot of barriers, it’s interventions and impacts of all these different things that will really move the needle and actually have an impact.”

For more information on the iDRAW program, visit To learn more about Detroit Mercy’s College of Engineering & Science, visit

— By Dave Pemberton. Follow Detroit Mercy on FacebookTwitter and Instagram. Have a story idea? Let us know by submitting your idea.