Ypsilanti Immigration Interview: Cassie Byrd

It took a long time, but my persistance paid off, and I was finally able to track down the very busy Cassie Byrd for her mandatory immigration interview. Cassie, for those of you who haven’t yet had the pleasure of making her acquaintance, is a relatively recent transplant from San Francisco, and a veritable whirlwind of energy and enthusiasm when it comes to getting girls interested, and keeping them interested, in science.

cassieypsi4MARK: My memory is a bit foggy, but I believe we talked quite some time ago at the behest of a mutual friend, Ruth Marks. Ruth, who left Ypsi for Oakland about three or four years ago, wanted to let me know that you were planning to move out this way from San Francisco… Is that right?

CASSIE: That’s correct. That would have been April 2014.

MARK: Before we get into your move to Ypsi, I’m curious as to how you came to meet Ruth.

CASSIE: Such a great happenstance! I was sitting in my office at the Exploratorium, where I worked at the time. In walks a colleague who was giving Ruth a tour of the building and making introductions. My colleague told us that Ruth was looking to do some volunteer work and had a background in the arts. I ran a program that utilized volunteers, so I asked her if she’d like to help me out. I asked about her background and she mentioned that she had started a children’s art center in “this little town in Michigan, near Ann Arbor, that you’ve probably never heard of.” I said, “Well, I’m going to be moving to that area, what town?” “Ypsilanti” she replied. “My partner and I just bought a house in Ypsi!”, I screamed.” Ruth then connected me with so many amazing people – even before I moved here… Thanks, Ruth!

MARK: So it wasn’t that you just met Ruth in San Francisco and felt as though you had to live in this quirky, little midwestern town where she grew up?

CASSIE: No, my partner had gotten into a joint doctoral program in Sociology and Social Work at the University of Michigan, in Ann Arbor.

MARK: And why did you choose Ypsi over Ann Arbor? Was the decision strictly economic?

CASSIE: Well, the housing prices were much more reasonable, yes. But, no, it wasn’t a strictly economic decision. From the moment we toured Ypsi, we could see the diversity and feel the community-spirit of the town. Our house is on a bus route and very close to the Border To Border Trail. Both of these were important factors for my partner, who wanted to feel close enough, but not too close, to the U-M campus. Another driving factor was being very close to the Health and Fitness Center. I swim to take care of my back, and that pool is amazing.

MARK: So, what were you doing at the Exploratorium?

CASSIE: For almost 10 years, I was a science educator there. During my time there, I created the Homeschool Science Program and the Girls Science Institute. The girls’ program is my passion, pride and joy… As an undergrad, I was an engineering major – along with three other women. At a meeting in the office of my college of engineering’s dean, he literally told me that women were unwelcome in the program. I left his office in tears and decided to change my major to biology. After college, I worked as a molecular biologist for the Air Force. And it was while I was there, conducting trainings, that I realized that I was both good at teaching, and really loved it. The Exploratorium was the perfect place to merge my laboratory career with my love of teaching science.

MARK: Assuming this dean is still alive, I’m curious if you’ve ever considered reaching out to him and letting him know that your life’s work is now ensuring that other young women have the ability to do what he had stopped you from doing.

CASSIE: Unfortunately, or maybe fortunately, I can’t recall his name. I recently tried to do a little detective work to uncover his identity, but my Google prowess failed. I’m ok with that, though. I’m not sure I want to dig into an event that happened so long ago. Additionally, he likely wouldn’t remember a short meeting with a struggling female student from 22 years ago.

MARK: But clearly it was an exchange that affected you deeply.

CASSIE: Yes, the experience left me with an indelible understanding of the complexity of girls’ experiences in STEM fields. And it wasn’t just that exchange. I didn’t have any support for college success. As an eldest child with three younger siblings, I was on track to become the first in my family (parents included) to receive a college degree. But, because my parents had not completed college, I had no support in understanding how to study for my college courses, nor how to navigate the college system. In short, I also lacked out-of-school experiences that would have strengthened my understanding of STEM topics and provided me with non-family mentors to help me succeed.

MARK: Were you born in California?

CASSIE: No, but I got there as fast as I could! Though I identify with the Northern California mentality, I was actually born in Illinois and raised in Texas.

CassieYpsi2bMARK: What’s your first memory?

CASSIE: I have this fuzzy memory of sitting in the snow in front of an old white two-story house. I asked my mom about this memory once and she told me it was from when we lived in Waukegan, Illinois while my dad was stationed at Great Lakes Naval Training Station – where I was born. I must have been less than one year old. I’ve often wondered if that house is still there and if seeing it would resonate with that memory.

MARK: How long have you been here in Michigan now?

CASSIE: I rolled into Ypsi with a Penski truck full of my stuff on September 2, 2014 – after an amazing week-long drive across the country. I highly recommend South Dakota for nature lovers. I was stunned by the contrasting beauty of the Black Hills and the Badlands. And, camping from the back of a moving truck definitely sparked some interesting conversations with curious park visitors.

MARK: So, do you have any questions for my readers? Do you need to know about trash pick-up, the local library system, good places to eat, tips on local bus routes?

CASSIE: One good thing is that my partner was here for a year before I moved out, so we’ve got the bus route, trash day, and library all figured out. I have my library card, and I was busy this past cold and snowy winter learning to cross country ski with the wonderful folks in the Washtenaw Ski Touring Club. (Thanks Lucy!) The things I’m still seeking after being here for about six months are… 1) Good long distance road biking routes. (I just signed up for the Baroudeur Century, if ayone wants to ride with me.) And 2) an alternative way of getting to work in Dearborn. I work at U-M Dearborn and the drive is terribly boring, plus it increases my carbon footprint! Coming from San Francisco, where I biked to work daily, this has been a real challenge. I looked into a train/bike combo, but the first train leaving Ann Arbor isn’t until 1:00 PM! Until I can afford a more fuel efficient vehicle, are there any Ypsi folks who also work in Dearborn who would want to carpool? Also, I would love to hear all about events / things to do / places to see that your readers want to share – I’m quite eclectic in my interests.

MARK: It’s still probably over a year away, but eventually we’re supposed to get a Depot Town stop on the Ann Arbor – Detroit line, which will also have a stop in Dearborn. As there will just be a few trips a day, it may not be perfect, but our hope is that, if we can demonstrate need, it’ll grow over time. At least that’s the hope.

CASSIE: That would be fabulous! I’ll show my support for such mass transit. I can imagine a future where the innovation efforts in Detroit draw folks from Ypsilanti and Ann Arbor. There are so many good things happening in Detroit – I’d love to see regularly scheduled trains throughout SE Michigan.

MARK: So, what is it that you’re doing at U-M Dearborn?

CASSIE: I’ve recently started work as part of the Extended Learning and Outreach team at U-M Dearborn College of Engineering and Computer Science to create teacher training programs to help teachers incorporate engineering design principles into their curriculum and to develop engineering-focused summer camps for K-12 students. This move is in response to calls for help from local teachers and to increase community engagement and interest in STEM fields and careers.

This work stems from the National Research Council (along with the National Science Teachers Association, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and Achieve) recommendations for updated science education standards called the Next Generation Science Standards. These new standards incorporate engineering design alongside already taught scientific inquiry. So, my role will be creating a collaboration between the School of Education, the College of Engineering and Computer Science, and local teachers to help facilitate incorporating these new standards.

MARK: I understand that your work in Ypsi may decrease a bit now that you’re employed full time in Dearborn, but you’ve been quite busy here in the community since your arrival in town. You taught a Mars rover-inspired girls’ science program at EMU that my daughter and I participated in. You’ve done work with FLY Children’s Art Center, helping them launch their Fabulous Contraptions series. And, if I understand correctly, you’ve done work inside Ypsi Public Schools through the Bright Futures program. I’m curious as to what you may have learned about the community, and our kids, as a result.

CASSIE: Yes, I was fortunate to meet many of the local players in the field of informal STEM education before starting my current job — the folks at the Center for Engineering Diversity and Outreach in Ann Arbor, who introduced me to Jamie Saville of Women in Science and Engineering, who introduced me to Russ Olwell, the Director of GEAR UP at Eastern. It was through Russ that I was able to teach the program that you and your daughter participated in.

I did work with the fabulous folks at FLY. I guided them to the activities that they incorporated into their Fabulous Contraptions workshop series that explored the intersection of art and science. As part of my job at the Exploratorium, I helped to curate hundreds of hands-on activities into an easy-to-navigate database called HowtoSMILE. So, I LOVE being a conduit to resources for teachers, out-of-school educators, and parents. In their video you can see kids exploring circuits while building Jitterbugs, exploring mechanics while building Cardboard Automata, and exploring the potential and kinetic energy in a Marble Machine.

I also participated in a Bright Futures Family Night at WIMA. I shared some activities related to how the eye-brain system works and what kinds of optical illusions are produced based upon that system. Although, the most interesting activity of that night (for me!) was the spontaneous activity of viewing the partial solar eclipse that was happening! I happened to have a pair of binoculars with me, so I demonstrated using the binoculars to view the eclipse on paper. (NEVER look directly at the sun!) I relish spontaneous moments of STEM learning.

Through these experiences with teachers, parents, and kids in the Ypsi community I’ve learned that there is a great hunger here for STEM learning opportunities – both in school and in out-of-school settings. I have an anecdotal story that highlights this: During August 2013, while moving my partner into our home, we attended the Ypsilanti Heritage Festival. As all your readers may know, there are a number of booths present and, at one of the booths, there were high school students demonstrating remote controlled robots. As I was walking by, I noticed a young girl, about 5 or 6 years old, operating the vehicle while her mother was talking with the teacher coach. She said that her daughter had this insatiable interest in science and she didn’t know where it came from as she herself wasn’t necessarily science minded. She lamented verbally at the lack of opportunities for her daughter to engage in STEM. I wanted to tell that mother – “I’m coming – I’ll be here for your daughter!” I knew in that instant that there was a place for me to share my passion for STEM with girls in Ypsilanti.

MARK: Given your experience, what’s your sense as to what works when it comes to getting girls interested in science, and, perhaps more importantly, keeping them engaged?

CASSIE: This is a huge question, with many variables, and lots of folks studying the topic. What research shows is that both girls and boys have equal interest in STEM topics through elementary school. However, by middle school, interest in STEM tends to diminish for girls. At this age, many girls tend to self-identify as either “being good at math and science” or “not being good at math and science.” In my work, I try to focus on girls between the ages of 10 -12 — hopefully catching their interest before they self-select out of STEM. Some key strategies for getting, and keeping, girls interested in STEM are:

INTRODUCE HER TO ROLE MODELS: If I asked you to describe the first image that pops into your mind when I say the word, “scientist”, what did you see? Many will describe the ubiquitous white male, with crazy hair, wearing a labcoat, probably blowing something up in a lab image. This stereotype belief holds true for girls too. Because of this, there is a disconnect between the descriptive stereotype that scientists must look like that crazy guy and how girls view themselves. So, we must introduce girls to many types of scientists with whom they can identify. “If she can see it, she can be it.”

GIVE HER OPPORTUNITIES TO ENGAGE IN STEM EXPERIENCES: Take advantage of girls’ interest in STEM from a young age – visit science centers and other informal learning environments, do activities at home that make the connection between STEM and everyday life (talk about the science or math of cooking while making dinner, explain a household or automotive repair to her, let her tinker with you – gaining hands-on experience with tools), or encourage her to sign up for a STEM related afterschool or summer program.

ENCOURAGE GROWTH MINDSET: Research out of Stanford University by Dr. Carol Dweck found that people could be described as having a fixed mindset (that their intelligence or talents were fixed) or a growth mindset (that their intelligence or talents can be developed through dedication and hard work). When we give girls opportunities to succeed and to fail, we create a space for them to learn from failure, which can help them develop a growth mindset. This piece gets at the heart of the “I’m not good at math” problem and paves the way for her to develop perseverance, which is critical for success in STEM fields.

MARK: It wasn’t too long ago that I interviewed another San Francisco native, Lee Azus, whose boyfriend Rob Halpern had gotten a job teaching creative writing here at EMU. If I remember his interview correctly, I think he had some concerns about moving to such a small town after having lived in the city for so long. Are you feeling any trepidation?

CASSIE: I definitely felt trepidation at first. Like Lee, I was worried about the culture of acceptance. I can say for a fact that I have never felt shunned or judged here. My neighborhood started a community on NextDoor.com and one of the organizers hosted a meet and greet at her home. That was a welcoming experience. Our mail carrier introduced herself soon after we moved in and told us to let her know if we needed anything. Anything! So kind. On that snow day at the beginning of February, many of my neighbors were outside helping one another shovel driveways and introducing themselves. I really felt included in the community. The people in Ypsi are truly beautiful.


[Still wondering why people are moving to Ypsi? Check out the Ypsilanti Immigration Interview archive.]

Posted in Education, Special Projects, Uncategorized, Ypsilanti | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 60 Comments

Singing about heartbroken monsters with Fangs and Twang, discussing the condition of Michigan’s roads with Representative David Rutledge, and reliving the horrors of Totally Awesome Fest… on episode 16 of The Saturday Six Pack


My favorite moment of this week’s episode happened within just the first few minutes. I was looking at State Representative David Rutledge’s face when Fangs and Twang performed the opening theme song that they’d written for the show, and he was just beaming. While I think he genuinely liked the song, which was admittedly pretty awesome, my sense is that he was responding to more than just the trio’s unique brand of mystical country. I’m pretty sure, based on the way he looked around the room, and what he said to me just afterward, that we was reacting more to the fact that a local band had gone to the effort of writing a song specifically for this little AM radio show of mine, and that made me really happy. He didn’t say it, but the look on his face gave me the sense that he was thinking, “Something uniquely interesting is happening here.” Of course the spell was broken once I started grilling him on the condition of Michigan’s roads, and what he intended to do about it, but, for that short moment, I got the sense that he felt as though we were all conspiring together to create something truly different and beautiful in downtown Ypsilanti… But maybe I’m just projecting.

Here’s Representative Rutledge explaining to me, and our listeners, why it was that he chose not to run against Debbie Dingell for Congress. [I asked if he’d been threatened. He laughed and said, “No.”]


I probably should have grilled him harder on school funding, mass transit, and the like, but I think we touched on enough policy stuff to make it a worthwhile conversation… I had a long list of serious questions for him, but I found myself drifting away from the script, as I often do, choosing instead to follow little threads and see where they might lead. A question about how he came to be living in Michigan, led to a discussion about having grown up in Tennessee, which, in turn, led to discussion about what it was like leaving high school, knowing that segregation would be ending with your graduating class. So, between our discussions of term limits and roads, we jumped around a lot, talking about his memories of attending a Martin Luther King speech with his father, and the jazz radio show he hosted while stationed at an oversees Air Force base in the 70s. I know that some in the audience probably would have rather that I stayed more in the present, asking him about specific votes he’d cast, and what he’s been doing to bring better jobs to Ypsilanti, but, when push comes to shove, I guess I’d rather talk about someone’s memory of his father having taken him to hear Martin Luther King speak, than ask about the finer points of the legislation that’s coming out of his office. And I think, being completely honest, that’s one of the bigger faults with The Saturday Six Pack. When you get right down to it, I’m more of an oral historian than a political reporter. Still, though, I think there was enough policy stuff discussed to have made it worthwhile… Or at least I hope you all got something out of it.

[If you missed the live broadcast, you can now hear the episode in its entirety on both iTunes and Soundcloud. Or, if you want, you can just scroll down to end of this post, where you’ll find it embedded.]

As I mentioned above, Fangs and Twang, wrote a song especially for their appearance on The Saturday Six Pack… or, to be more accurate, they rewrote the lyrics for one of their existing songs, substituting references to vampires with mentions of my “big ‘ol mouth“… Here are the guys in Fangs and Twang, who I talked with for quite a while between songs about life, love and monsters. So, if you’re curious as to why a bunch of grown men would get together to form a country band that only performs songs about monsters, or whether or not they feel at all limited by that self-imposed restraint, listen in. [I especially liked the exchange toward the end of our discussion when I asked if they’d consider writing a campaign song for David Rutledge should he decide to run against Debbie Dingell someday.]


And that, as they say, was just the tip of the iceberg… Non-motorize transportation advocate Bob Krzewinski came by the studio to tell us about Bike Bus Walk Week. Totally Awesome Fest organizers Patrick Elkins, Amber Fellows, and Ben Miller came by to share some of their favorite moments from the recently held 11th annual festival of beautiful weirdness, and play clips from the likes of Riverspirit, Autumn Nicole Wetli, Deadbeat Beat, and Danica Danger. [See Amber and Ben below, talking about pancakes.] We played a new song sent to us from Kenya by Dr. Peter Larson. We had another segment of The People’s History of Ypsilanti with Matt Siegfried. And, at the end of the show, local artist Cre Fuller came in to discuss the closing of SPUR studios


It was a good, solid show. But don’t believe me…

Listen for yourself.

Thanks, as always, to AM 1700 for hosting the show, Brian Robb for running the board, and Kate de Fuccio for documenting everything in photos.

And do listen, if you have a chance. It’s a good episode, and this writeup really doesn’t do it justice.

[If you like this episode, check out our archive of past shows at iTunes. And do please leave a review if you have the time, OK? It’s nice to know that people are listening, and, unless you call in, that’s pretty much the only way we know.]

Posted in Art and Culture, The Saturday Six Pack, Uncategorized, Ypsilanti | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 12 Comments

The Six Pack Portrait Project makes the cover of The Ann magazine

I was just informed that yours truly, along with Brandon “MC Kadence” Mitchell and Ypsilanti photographer Chris Stranad will be gracing the cover of the next issue of The Ann magazine, which, if I understand correctly, is to be largely about the increasingly complex, interconnected and supportive art scene evolving here in Ypsilanti.


The very talented Benjamin Weatherston took the above photo this past Saturday, right before we started broadcasting The Saturday Six Pack. In the photo, progressive hip-hop artist Brandon Mitchell, who has been a guest on the show, is having his photo taken for the Six Pack Portrait Project, a collaborative initiative between Chris and me that’s grown out of the radio program. I haven’t talked with he editors of The Ann about why they chose this shot for their cover, but it seems to me that it pretty well sums up what’s going on in Ypsilanti right now, as creative types are doing a better job of working collaboratively, leveraging local resources, and promoting one another.

[It’s yet to be confirmed, but it looks as though the portraits taken thus far might be on display in early June, as part of Ypsi First Fridays. Stay tuned for details.]

Posted in Ann Arbor, Art and Culture, The Saturday Six Pack, Ypsilanti | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Collapse within Ypsilanti’s Thompson Block leaves one worker dead

Just a little more than an hour after Ypsilanti landlord turned real estate developer Stewart Beal took to Facebook to announce that demolition on the Thompson Block’s first floor had begun, word spread by way of social media that one of Beal’s workers had lost his life as the result of a floor collapse.

Screen Shot 2015-05-11 at 1.45.22 PM

While I’d like to think that we could just come together as a community and mourn this man’s passing, and allow the inevitable investigation to run its course before attempting to cast blame, it looks as though the conversation online is already turning toward Beal’s possible culpability. Given the controversy that has swirled around the redevelopment of the old Civil War barrack since it was set on fire by a squatter in the early fall of 2009, it’s not that surprising. Rightly or wrongly, many in this community feel as though Beal, who is one of the City’s largest property owners, has been less than forthcoming in his dealings with the City concerning the development of the block, and not terribly proactive with regard to safety.

As for my personal take on Beal’s stewardship of the Thompson block, I’m torn. While I’ve found his foot dragging when it comes to meeting the commitments he’d made with the City to be frustrating, I haven’t really held it against him, as I know that this has been an incredibly difficult time to raise money for construction projects in places other than Ann Arbor. The truth is, this was a very risky project to undertake, and Stewart accepted it when others had passed. And I think, for that reason, I’ve been willing to give him the benefit of the doubt as he’s tried everything in his power to keep the project moving forward. With that said, though, I do think that serious mistakes have been made. For instance, I hold Beal responsible for leaving this valuable historic asset, which was practically given to him by the City, relatively unsecured, allowing squatters to move in and ultimately set fire to it. Everything that has happened since, I think, can be traced back to that lapse on his part, and I believe he’s deserving of criticism for that. But that doesn’t, of course, mean that he was in any way culpable for what happened today.

As for the building itself, I’ve never been convinced that it was structurally sound enough to be redeveloped, regardless of who was doing the job… Here, by way of background, is a clip from a post I’d written shortly after the 2009 fire about the condition of the building.

I had occasion to talk with a gentleman the other day who is in the construction business, and he indicated to me that saving the Thompson block at this point would be near impossible. He said that it was likely that the mortar holding the bricks in place, which was already beginning to fail in sections, was further weakened by the extreme heat of the fire. In his professional opinion, the only way to move forward at this point would be to number the bricks, take down the walls, and then build them back again with new mortar, perhaps reversing them in the process, so that the sides previously facing in, faced out. He, however, acknowledged that doing so would almost certainly make the project ineligible for historic building grants and incentives such as those which had been under consideration prior to the fire. So, I’m not sure where this leaves us as a community. What I do know, however, is that the structure, as it now stands, isn’t likely to stand for long…

My hope, for all involved, is that today’s tragedy, while terrible, was more a horrible workplace accident than it was the result of cutting corners and ignoring accepted safety protocols. If it turns out that this man’s death was the result of the latter, I’ll be the first to join the chorus of those demanding justice. For now, though, I really don’t see what can be gained by turning this into an attack on Beal… I’ll be the first to admit that things don’t look good, but I don’t see how anything can be gained from comments, like the ones I’ve seen online this afternoon, demanding that he be driven from town. What we should focus on right now, in my opinion, is securing the building so that no one else is injured, cooperating with investigators, and providing assistance to the family of the man who who died this morning. [If anyone knows about fundraising efforts for this man’s family, please let me know and I will add a link here.]

Lastly, here’s a photo taken this afternoon by Robert Vogt, who was eating across the street at Sidetrack when the collapse took place.


update: We now know more about the incident. The following is from MLive.

…The man was working on renovations at Thompson Block — at 400 N. River St. — that have been ongoing since January. Ypsilanti Fire Department Capt. Dan Cain said a crew of four men were in the basement of the building clearing room for an excavator to be brought down when the first floor collapsed.

Three others who were in the basement were uninjured in the collapse, but the deceased man was trapped underneath the floor and a pile of wood sitting on the first floor, as well. The three men tried to remove some of the flooring on top of the man, but had to be careful not to remove a piece and bring more of the rubble down on them.
Cain said the man was communicating with his co-workers shortly after the floor collapsed, but eventually stopped responding.

Emergency crews were called to the scene at about 11:45 a.m. and had the man out of the rubble about 20 minutes later…

update: A GoFundMe.com page has been established to raise money for the family of the deceased.

Posted in Architecture, History, Uncategorized, Ypsilanti | Tagged , , , | 32 Comments

You’re on your own this evening


Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments


Sidetrack ad Aubree’s ad BUY LOCAL... or shop at Amazon through this link Banner Initiative No One Cares