George Bilokonsky knew his students were world champions. But when he walked into the St. Louis Dome in 2016, he realized that his students would be competing against teams sponsored by Boeing, NASA, Rockwell, Motorola, and others, with support from such universities as Kettering, Michigan Technology University, Ohio State University, South Dakota School of Mines and Technology and Rochester Institute of Technology.
He wondered if his students, many of whom had never flown on an airplane before, would get intimidated.
Bilokonsky’s robotics team of Cleveland Metropolitan School District high school students, housed at Cuyahoga Community College (Tri-C), had been building and programming its robot, the Red Dragon, for weeks. Would they crack under the pressure of being in an arena with 40,000 spectators?
The students, however, did what Bilokonsky knew they could: They took first place in the FIRST Robotics World Competition by successfully engineering a robot to catapult boulders through a castle window during the Disney-designed Monty Python themed competition.
When the students brought the world competition prize back to Cleveland, it was an affirmation of what Bilokonsky had long known: His students were superstars.
Bilokonsky, now associate dean of engineering and manufacturing at Cuyahoga Community College, had served for 15 years as the executive director of Tri-C’s Youth Technology Academy (YTA), which recruited students as early as ninth grade to come to Tri-C to work with robots and earn college credit.
Bilokonsky says the students enrolled in the YTA program were selected from Northeast Ohio high schools, with a majority coming from some of the nation’s poorest zip codes in Cleveland. The program started with just 12 students, exploded to about 2,000 seats filled per year at the College under Bilokonsky’s leadership.
Keys to success – family engagement
Bilokonsky said one of the key reasons why students excelled in the YTA program was that families were also involved and a culture of caring was created around the robotics program.
“If you look at most school open houses and the number of parents who actually show up to see what the kids are doing at the high school level, it’s very limited. There isn’t a whole lot of family engagement,” he said. “But if you can bring it down to something that’s exciting, like the robotics program, where kids are traveling or going out of town, you can request that parents show and be a part of that excitement. If you provide a shared experience that includes some sort of meal and a presentation, they’ll show up; they’ll get engaged. They’ll be there with the students.”
Bilokonsky said that there is no debating the powerful impact family engagement has on a student’s performance. He added that the best way to ensure family engagement is to offer encouragement for those families.
“The argument I would make is that if you make it special and provide an atmosphere of community along with a good meal, parents will show up,” he says.
Families show up and like to learn about what their children are doing. Parents understand that the technology training students receive is important, and they are supportive. Parents also realize that they don’t have to understand everything; they simply have to be there for support and offer encouragement. “They also understand that it is the kids’ time. So they are engaged, but don’t take over,” he said.
College experience early
Bilokonsky noted that the biggest attraction to many families was that the students were being offered a college experience while they were still in high school. “We are working with mostly first-generation college participants, so that’s huge for families,” he says.
Having worked with students from the city as well as from suburban schools, Bilokonsky says that he saw profound differences in their parents’ orientation: “The suburban parents wanted to see their child go to an engineering school somewhere. They were more concerned about what classes their child was taking and whether the classes would transfer. On the other hand, conversations with parents of inner-city school kids often revolved around transportation, logistics, and safety as well as what was being taught in the class.”
Developing the culture
Bilokonsky explained, “When working with students and parents, you really start developing a culture. One of the things I realized was something that we weren’t really anticipating: By having this program around for several years, we were developing a culture of understanding within the community. We knew that if students got involved with this program they were going to learn about technology, they would be able to travel and they would hang out with others like them. All of this had a huge impact on the students’ surroundings, attitude, and community.”
And there’s also an impact on families. “If students have siblings at home, the siblings want to be in the same program. They want to do the same thing. They see how much fun the program is. A lot of the students were also involved in our program because it was a safe place for them to hang out. They developed a sense of camaraderie with other like-minded students. Having food available didn’t hurt the process.”
Much of the student loyalty to the program also came from creating a place where students could go and be part of a group. “And you know, it was rewarding for them to be accepted by other people like them who were interested in the same thing,” Bilokonsky says.
The reality for many of the students, Bilokonsky explained, was that the Tri-C campus was a safe place for them. “If you visit some of the high schools and see what the schools are like, you understand why the students didn’t stay after school. It was not really safe for them to get home and there was no transportation provided after school. At the community college, bus transportation was provided for students so they knew they were going to be safe. They also knew there would always be food available and there would always be something fun to do.”
- Make your engagement efforts special and provide a community atmosphere, including food and transportation for students and their families.
- Give parents as much information as possible about what their students will be learning, doing, and experiencing so that they can best encourage their children.
- Create a culture of belonging and accomplishment. Ensure the space is safe for all children and their families.
The NeoStem Ecosystem is a highly energized, strongly united and richly credentialed group working for one common goal: increasing access to and excitement for computer science, computational thinking and digital literacy in Northeast Ohio – especially among underserved populations.
After two years of deep conversation and planning with a group of diverse stakeholders, we’re adopting bold action plans designed to increase access to and excitement for quality STEM programming.