Valerie and Tony Russell are rolling.
On a 90-degree day in late May, their SUV cruises the streets of Detroit’s Osborn neighborhood, their home. Each turn kickstarts a new story culled from a decade-plus of patrolling.
If you know Osborn’s reputation, you can guess what some of the stories are like. The body, shot dead, set on fire and left to burn in a vacant lot near Six Mile Road. The thwarted rape of a 13-year-old girl dragged into an abandoned garage on her way to school. And then there’s the street the Russells used to live on, where after-dark access used to be controlled exclusively by the block’s drug dealers.
“A lot of the young men here are frustrated with a lot of things,” says Tony, known as Bishop Russell to those at nearby New Covenant of Peace church. He and Valerie command a small army of volunteers that patrol the area by car to protect children going to and from school.
“There is a lot of frustration that drives (crime),” he adds. “A lot of broken relationships. Disappointment, dreams that have gone bad.”
Outsiders see Osborn as the sum of parts like those. They rehash nicknames like Red Zone, Murder Zone and, in a play on the area’s 48215 zip code, 4821-Die. In 2011, The Detroit News crunched statistics and labeled Osborn the city’s “deadliest neighborhood.”
It would be easy to follow numbers down that rabbit hole. But this isn’t that story.
The number to focus on here is 6099 – four digits that belong to a small group of students at Osborn High School. It’s their team number in the growing world of competitive robotics. It’s the number they carried with them all the way to the state championships in April – something Detroit public schools rarely do.
Small wins like this are visible around Osborn in recent years if you take the time to look. And it might be worth a long look. What’s happening in schools across Detroit through the national FIRST Robotics program has implications for individual neighborhoods, the city, the auto industry and Michigan’s economy as a whole. U-M’s Michigan Engineering Zone, an incubator for Detroit schools’ robotics programs known as the MEZ, is a small link between them.
Michigan has embraced the FIRST Robotics phenomenon like no other state, with 200 more high school teams than the next state, California.
Despite the exploding popularity here, however, Detroit public schools historically struggle to match the performance of other districts in robotics. A resource gap exists for areas that fall outside basic services and programs.
There have been recent improvements in the district, like efforts to bring arts programs back into the curriculum. But when FIRST Robotics arrived a decade ago with its new approach to encouraging math and science, Detroit was poorly-positioned to take advantage.
Detroit and state officials want this rising interest in robotics to continue. Both have enjoyed an economic resurgence in recent years that runs the risk of short-circuiting without more workers trained in math and science.
Often overlooked pockets of Detroit, like Osborn, may be the greatest source of untapped potential Michigan has to offer. Schools in those areas often turn to the MEZ, located along Woodward Avenue, to get robotics teams up and running.
Osborn is just one example. Detroit currently has 19 high schools participating in FIRST Robotics at the MEZ.
Each has kids willingly diving into the nerd-work of robot building at U-M’s facility in a way that, in previous generations, might have been reserved for sports teams or school plays. And FIRST Robotics rewards that effort with a similar kind of spectacle – electrifying competitions that surreptitiously encourage interest in math and science.