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Building robots and hanging out on campus, in high school

LCC's “Star TREC”  team - Photos © Dave Trumpie
LCC's “Star TREC” team - Photos © Dave Trumpie
The students were, in fact, enrolled in LCC through the school’s first year of their Early College program. They showed up to the meeting with a robot because months earlier their team - Star TREC - was inspired to participate in a local level of the national FIRST Robotics Competition. Against everyone’s expectations – including their own – the team experienced a string of victories in their first year, including first place at the Kettering University competition, ranking seventh in state finals and became the first rookie team to be asked to attend the national FIRST Robotics Competition in St. Louis.
 
“We had no budget for this,” says The Early College (TEC) Director, Kristine Grunwald, who was as surprised as anyone to see the first-time team from a first-time program win a place in the national competition. “We had to raise about twenty thousand dollars quickly. We had to recruit different companies and the kids made a presentation to the board of trustees.”
 
Surprising results have been the name of the game throughout LCC’s first year of TEC program, which takes area high school students and places them on a unique, college-bound learning curriculum on LCC’s campus. Data released at the end of the year showed TEC students’ ACT scores are more than seven points higher than the national average across all categories.
 
The really amazing thing about those dramatic results is the students participating in the college-bound curriculum weren’t selected for their grade point averages or high IQ’s. In fact, area schools were asked to invite students to apply who met demographic criteria that would make them less likely to attend college and help them to overcome those odds.
 
“The idea is to take students whose parents have not attended college,” says Grunwald. “That was the first priority, and the second is low income. We sent out an invitation to all twelve schools in the county. The students applied and then there was a lottery. Everybody was dropped into the hat.”
 
A Different Approach to Education
 
Those criteria make the Star TREC team’s first-year qualification for the national competition even more impressive. And just as their success was a reflection of the student’s stellar advancements scholastically, what Star TREC had to do to prepare to make it to St. Louis became an illustration of the holistic approach to college and career preparedness TEC takes.
 
“They don’t just hand you a grade here,” says 17-year-old TEC student and Star TREC member Mark Tompkins, “and they don't just look at a grade either. They look at personality and maturity, and they make sure you're ready to go on to college and be successful.”

The premise of The Early College is simple: students join as juniors taking high school-level courses, and, as each student is individually ready in each subject, he or she will begin taking college courses. By the end of the program’s third year – one more than the traditional arc of high school – students can earn up to a complete Associate’s Degree from LCC. For free.
 
This holistic approach to education gets those students college-ready, but also includes attendance requirements, public speaking training, interview preparation and job shadowing.
 
“It gives us a better idea of what our job is going to be like,” says TEC student, Pham Nguyen, 17. Nguyen had the chance to spend the day at MSU’s Cyclotron Laboratory. “When I went there, I got to meet physicists, and I got an idea of what I might be doing in 30 years.”

To make it to nationals in St. Louis, the Star TREC team found itself needing to draw on the lessons of their holistic learning. With money and awareness to raise before getting there, the team of students interested in robotics had to broaden their skill set.
 
“They needed marketing and publicity,” says Grunwald. “They applied what they were learning at TEC in real life. They had this big goal and they came up with a website, they needed help doing IT and outreach. Everyone was able to see the pieces of what it takes to run a company.”

Being on Campus
 
Star TREC didn’t only receive help from their peers at the school, but other FIRST Robotics teams in the Lansing area.
 
“The Okemos Team was our mentor team and they were real excited for us,” says Tompkins. “All of the teams have helped us out, and they have even invited us to a secret meeting to discuss strategy for next year.”
 
Meeting robotics teams from other schools has been a fun bonus to the competition for the Star TREC team, but it’s also what has been happening all year at TEC for the nearly 90 students who left their high schools to participate in the program on LCC’s campus.
 
“I like the change social environment,” says Nguyen. “It's more mature. And there is a higher degree of freedom. I don't miss [my high school] much, maybe the friends.”
 
For other TEC students, the sacrifice of the conventional high school experience is a little toughter.
 
“I dedicate a lot of time to this with transportation,” says Justin McCarty, 17, who spent about two hours per day commuting to and from LCC from Stockbridge, “so I've lost a majority of my friends. It's much more educational focus here; much more than high school.”
 
TEC students can still participate in their school’s events. Tompkins attended his prom, Nguyen participated in his school’s Science Olympics team and McCarty made it to every football game last year. Though there’s no underestimating what it means for a teenager to leave his or her friends during their last two years of high school, McCarty, Tompkins and Nguyen are all quite clear on one thing:
 
“The benefits still outweigh the costs,” says McCarty.
 
“The prestige you get from this program and the opportunities are worth it,” says Tompkins. “Plus you get new friends.”
 
And get to try new things, of course, like becoming the first rookie FIRST Robotics team to make it to nationals. Though Star TREC didn’t do as well as they’d hoped in St. Louis, the very fact that they qualified and then organized a successful trip there says some pretty exciting things about the kind of students LCC is producing at TEC.
 
“It's an intensely powerful program,” says Grunwald. “The kids have to work very hard. It's not for everybody. Not all of them are ready for college yet, but by the end of their senior years, they will be.”
 
This possibility is even more of a slam-dunk, metaphorically, than a robot that can play basketball. Which is, you have to admit, pretty impressive in and of itself.


Natalie Burg is the news editor for Capital Gains.

Dave Trumpie
is the managing photographer for Capital Gains. He is a freelance photographer and owner of Trumpie Photography.

Photos:

The Star TREC team (including Mark Tompkins holding medal) at the LCC Board of Trustees Meeting

Photos © Dave Trumpie
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