The Grizzly Scholars.

New program to combine STEM education with financial literacy and travel, starting in elementary school

Adding life skills to education in science, technology, engineering and math sets students up for success, through a partnership led and funded by a Michigan Engineering alum.

The Grizzly Scholars, a new program at Ypsilanti Community Schools, aims to teach science and financial literacy while also introducing students to experiences like travel—and it begins in the fourth grade. The two-year pilot kicked off on November 11, 2021 with a white coat ceremony, formalizing the commitment from students and parents, Ypsilanti teachers and administrators, the University of Michigan College of Engineering and the Germany Ballintyn Education Foundation.

Children from communities that are historically excluded from science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) often don’t have access to professionals who work in these fields. While much effort has been dedicated to outreach, exposure is not usually enough to overcome hurdles related to economic class, including both financial and social training. Moreover, outreach typically doesn’t happen early enough—girls and underrepresented minorities have often ruled out STEM fields before they even reach high school. 

Raneem Saleh admires her lab coat at the Grizzly Scholars kick-off ceremony on November 11th.
Raneem Saleh admires her lab coat at the Grizzly Scholars kick-off ceremony on November 11th. Photo: Robert Coelius/Michigan Engineering

“So often, by the time students reach middle school, they have lost interest in STEM and sometimes have even been tracked away from the math and science classes they need to be prepared to pursue STEM studies,” said Karina Moore, associate director of the U-M Center for Engineering Diversity and Outreach and director of pre-college programs. 

“The Grizzly Scholars program addresses that head-on by fostering a passion for STEM education at every step of the academic journey from 4th grade on, while also supporting students’ growth in other equally important areas,” she said. 

Michigan Engineering alum Rhonda Germany (ChE ’79), who designed and funded this program, used to be an underprivileged Ypsilanti student. 

“My parents didn’t go past 8th grade,” said Germany. “I’d only met one [STEM] professional in my life other than my doctor and my dentist by the time I’d graduated high school.”

The Grizzly Scholars program starts by capturing the imaginations of students, beginning with aerospace topics in fourth grade and moving on to underwater life in fifth grade. These units will also accelerate the students’ learning about science and math, laddering up to more advanced concepts introduced in middle and high school. 

“Scholars will spend a week at the University each summer, where they’ll explore campus, learn about some of the cool research happening in our labs, and engage in hands-on STEM activities. Their time at Michigan will serve to cultivate a college-going culture and cement the idea that they belong here. We’re honored to be partnering with the Germany Ballintyn Education Foundation and Ypsilanti Community Schools to serve the community and do this important work,” said Moore.

Royce Douglas receives his certificate from Rhonda Germany at the white coat ceremony kicking off the Grizzly Scholars program.
Royce Douglas receives his certificate from Rhonda Germany at the white coat ceremony kicking off the Grizzly Scholars program. Photo: Robert Coelius/Michigan Engineering

Royce Douglas, one of the students in the first cohort of Grizzly Scholars, is motivated to try out engineering because he recognizes that those skills will enable him to build something new. “I’m most excited about learning new things and inventing with my friends,” he said.

Orangelle Gardner, Douglas’s mother and a Ypsilanti Community School bus driver, is also excited about the opportunities that the program opens for her son. “It gives the kids ideas, and keeps them wondering and mastering different skills,” she said. “It carries them on through middle school and high school and even over into college.”

Germany, whose success as an engineer and then a business executive launched her into the upper class, saw her children encountering chemistry concepts in fifth grade at private school that she didn’t see until high school. Part of the aim of the Grizzly Scholars is to help close that gap.

Travel is an integral part of both STEM and business cultures, and the Grizzly Scholars will get a taste of it, starting by acquiring passports in fourth grade and then travelling to Canada the next year. In middle school, Germany plans to send them to Europe, and in high school, the destination will be in Asia.

They’ll learn the procedures at airports, how to check into hotels and how to eat at fancy restaurants—experiences that privileged students typically have as children, which make it easier for them to chase opportunities and network with people who can help them.

Germany is working with industry partners such as Blue Origin. Over time, these partners may be able to provide mentoring and job shadowing opportunities to the Grizzly Scholars. The program will potentially take them to rocket launch sites, laboratories, factories and engineering design sites.

The students will also receive money into a shared account that they collectively manage. They’ll learn the basics, like balancing checkbooks and making decisions about purchases, but also move on to investing in later years. Upon graduation, the students who stuck with the program will split the money equally—hopefully to help fund college careers.

In addition to teaching the students, Germany hopes to create opportunities for adults too.

“We really want the program to be inclusive enough that parents, teachers and administrators also get to learn whatever they want to learn,” said Germany. “My parents really could have benefited from learning some of these things, and they never had that opportunity.”

Gardner is looking forward to being a parent participant on trips. “I hope I get to be one of the bus drivers,” she said with a laugh.