If a lack of diversity is the new normal, what can Michigan schools do?
Teacher Josh Nichols is corralling a group of fifth-grade students into a classroom where there are PVC pipe, five-gallon buckets and ropes piled on tables, all arranged around two large cow troughs full of water. It's a makeshift laboratory, where the kids from this Stockbridge, Michigan elementary school make robots that function underwater.
The students are getting their remotely operated underwater vehicles, or ROVs, ready for a Saturday trip to Albion, Michigan, a town about 35 miles away. "The ROVs will travel in the buckets," Nichols reminds them. "We need every piece."
Nichols has been planning what some of the kids call a "geekend," for several months. He and Albion teacher Jason Raddatz met and connected over the ways they try to provide high-quality STEM (science, technology, education and math) education on a shoestring budget.
They also want to combat the geographic, and in many ways demographic, isolation of the two rural mid-Michigan schools.
"A student could stay in a school system like this, and if they aren't involved in sports, they could go for six, eight, nine years without really leaving the town and having interaction with other students from other schools," Nichols explains.
The two districts share a lot of similar characteristics. Albion's district is smaller now, with only around 600 students since it merged its high school with a nearby town last year. Stockbridge seems big in comparison, with about 1,400 students in the district. In both places, about 75% of children qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.
The districts diverge when it comes to the race and ethnicity of students. The overwhelming majority of Stockbridge students are white. The majority of students in Albion are not. The pattern is repeated all over the state. Michigan’s schools are some of the most racially segregated in the country – third on the list.
In this environment, schools are having to figure out what creating a diverse environment is worth, educationally, and how to go about it. For Stockbridge and Albion it involves travel, underwater robots, and rockets.
"We want a chance to impress them"
On a recent Saturday morning, about 60 third, fourth and fifth-graders from Stockbridge travel to meet about 50 kids the same age from Albion. There are also a few kids from the nearby towns of Marshall and Mar Lee participating. The kids are each wearing a red T-shirt given to them when they arrived that says either "R is for Rocket" or "R is for ROV." They are split up into different classrooms, going through a rotation of earthworm dissection, rocket launching, building something called a SumoBot, and working the ROVs in the swimming pool.
The kids work together. There are Stockbridge kids and Albion kids on each team talking easily and trading tips. Some are making fast friends. It seems almost effortless. Stockbridge teacher Josh Nichols didn't want to play up the difference in race at all before the students got here, thinking they would have so much to do together they would soon connect over their similarities instead of their differences.
There is research that says that strategy is risky, but it seems to have worked in this case. Jeffrey Milem is a professor at the University of Arizona. He has had a long career studying the effects of diversity. Milem says talking about difference isn't necessarily what makes experiencing diversity beneficial. And Milem says there are concrete benefits of diversity.
In fact, diversity can help you think.
"There is pretty compelling evidence that diversity enhances critical thinking, and a range of ideas and concepts related to critical thinking," he says. "What we sort of call social cognitive development."
Basically, Milem says being in a diverse environment while learning can make it easier for your brain to attack a problem from a variety of different perspectives. But in order for those cognitive benefits to happen, Milem says, some conditions need to be met. One of the most important is that the people involved need to be seen by each other as having equal status. That seems to be happening with the kids from Albion and Stockbridge. They know the weekend is primarily for them to learn from each other.
"Forty-five minutes apart, but different worlds"
Ben Young is a fifth-grader at Stockbridge. Over lunch, he says wants to keep this partnership going. "I think we need to mix it up and Albion should come to our school," he says. "We want a chance to impress them."
Levi Miller and AyoOlapade are sitting with Young eating lunch. They say they like how it feels to impress another school. "That makes us feel awesome," Miller says. "Albion tries to be amazing," Olapade chimes in. And then the boys are back to talking about science and soccer.
Richard Hughes is sitting nearby, next to his son Noah, also a fifth grader at Stockbridge. Hughes graduated from Stockbridge High School. He said the opportunity to do this kind of exchange just didn't exist while he was in school. He says Albion and Stockbridge, "are 45 or 50 minutes apart but they're different worlds. It's nice for these kids to come in here and interact with each other just to learn how to get to know other people," he says. "It's pretty neat for them to get to do that."
The weekend is unlikely to be the last collaboration between the two schools. There's already talk about putting together a scuba certification program at Albion in which kids from Stockbridge can take part. Albion has a pool and Stockbridge doesn’t. The scuba certifications could help both schools with their underwater robotics programs.
In this educational environment, sharing resources is a good strategy – whether those resources are swimming pools, or the life experiences students bring into the classroom with them.