Why would a robotics company partner with a high school?

What makes Stratford unique and why are business partnerships are so important to the success of public schools? We spoke with David Peters, CEO of Universal Robotics and chair of the Academy of Science and Engineering at Stratford High School to find out.

Universal Robotics CEO David Peters (Photo from the Universal Robotics website)

Give me a little bit of background on how you became to be Stratford’s Academy Partner and what motivated you to participate in this way? I know you participated on the Chamber of Commerce Report Card committee. Did that have a big impact on your decision?

I run a software engineering company and it was clear to me from our activities in hiring – and the quality of the kinds of jobs and salaries that we were providing – that these jobs were excellent career opportunities. When I was young, I learned from popular media what engineering was about, but it wasn’t accurate. I know now that engineering in the United States is not where it needs to be. When I coupled our need with our opportunities, it was clear to me it was important to get involved in education.

It’s been a real pleasure to watch how the school has been improving the quality of the staff and increasing the quality of experience for the students. All these elements combine and begin to impact the quality of the school.

Stratford is a very dramatic example of improvement. 

How does this translate in the real world for the students at Stratford?

We do a job shadow program that isn’t your typical job shadow; it isn’t someone following an employee around for a day. We have an in-depth conversation around how our work applies to the real world. Students spend time in the lab with research engineers.  We do intermittent lectures around various aspects of technology. We show up in a classroom and give a talk. Nissan and Barge Waggoner Sumner and Cannon have additional resources and have the ability to coordinate field trips. That shows students what’s actually happening in an engineering process.

The robotics team was a great opportunity. The staff at the school just took it on with such gusto and really drove the support that was necessary to make this happen for the students. It was so effective from a learning, experience, team-building and community aspect. It’s an excellent program. As we move forward to carry this on, we’re being more strategic. [Note: The team is planning for the 2014 FIRST Robotics competition. In 2013, they were awarded the FIRST Robotics Rookie Team of the Year.] As Americans we love our sport, so when you can take an engineering idea and turn into sport, it’s easy for support to follow.

What I really appreciate at Stratford is that they take all comers. That’s great. There are plenty of young adults who are listless and it’s reflected in their academic performance. And they just haven’t had the exposure to something that could be rewarding. When they are exposed to something like the robotics team, you can see it just take off for them.

Do you think having these types of partners, like you and Nissan and Vanderbilt, has helped transform Stratford into the STEM school it is now? Students are obviously seeing a difference and can even tell there has been a shift since just three or four years ago.

We’ve been a part of it. There are a lot of factors that drive success. No question that the part we play is useful and helpful and has definitely supported that. The committee is getting stronger because of the feedback that’s happening. People love a winner.

And the stronger that school becomes, the more likely it will expand its demographic base.

Sometimes I think the public sees a business partnership as just a means to a donation of technology or funds for classroom upgrades, and I’m sure that’s part of the partnership, but talk to me more about how these partnerships impact everyday learning.

That’s an important part of the process. The resources that are made available by the business community are important. More significantly, what I’ve seen is that the stickiness of a commitment to the school is driven by the individual representative’s personal desire for the betterment of the young adult. They recognize how education is so critical to a rich, fulfilling, productive life, and they understand their unique position gives them the ability to help influence that. Those that really get involved carry that in their heart. They just naturally expand the company’s involvement. They have staying power.