Developing STEM Learning at the Community Level
For the past 18 months Project Exploration has become deeply embedded in the Austin community on the far west side of Chicago. Austin, the largest Chicago community, has approximately 25,000 children and youth. As the backbone organization of the Chicago STEM Pathways Cooperative, a key strategic goal of Project Exploration is to develop STEM learning microsystems at the neighborhood level in partnership with community members. The Austin microsystem serves as proof-of-concept for how local assets can be leveraged and optimized to engage youth―cradle to career—from communities traditionally underrepresented in STEM.
West Side STEM Learning Center
The West Side STEM Learning Center (SLC), housed at the George Leland Chicago Public School Annex, will serve as a regional site to anchor high-quality STEM learning opportunities for youth in the West Side communities, including Austin and Belmont-Cragin. Ultimately, the SLC aims to be a STEM learning hub for youth, families, and teachers; it will draw CPS classrooms from across the city for high-quality experiential learning, amplify the value of STEM learning in the community, bridge citywide STEM resources with local assets, and strengthen collaboration among regional and citywide stakeholders. Situated in Austin the SLC has the potential for positively impacting and engaging thousands of youth and families on the West Side.
Community Open House
On January 22nd Project Exploration hosted a community open house event called, ‘Celebrating a New Year in STEM Learning’. As the title suggests, the objective of this event was to celebrate the opening and future potential of the West Side STEM Learning Center as well as highlight the incredible work already taking place in Austin. Community stakeholders, students, and parents alike explored six different classrooms and a hallway full of engaging STEM activities. Over 50 guests registered for the event and attendees were able to participate in various activities, from creating paper rockets to touching real local specimens to creating musical instruments.
We heard from Principal Turon Ivy, of George Leland Elementary School. Project Exploration values the partnership and support from Leland Elementary School and CPS as the SLC continues to develop and grow. Darnell Shields, a lifetime resident of the Austin neighborhood and Executive Director of Austin Coming Together shared his personal story. He told us about his own inability to become the engineer he had longed to be. Because he wanted so badly to help his son succeed at becoming an engineer, he drove his son all over the city in search of STEM education opportunities. Darnell sacrificed significantly to give his son what he did not have while knowing that not every parent can do this. Now that there is a STEM Learning Center in Austin, all kids can become engineers, if they want to! A final thank you goes to Bernice Billups and her team at the Boeing Foundation. Her kind words and support of Project Exploration helps to make the work in Austin possible.
The STEM Learning Center, is being designed through a public-private collaboration between Chicago Public Schools, Project Exploration, and the Austin community. The open house was a way to envision what the STEM Learning Center can represent. We were pleased to have committed partners take on a room and offer a window into hands on, inquiry based learning. The Chicago Architecture Foundation, had building activities, design challenges, and engineering basics with Lego ®. The Chicago Academy of Sciences / Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum exhibited specimens and live animals. The Center for College Access and Success introduced students to the world of rocketry by making paper rockets and learning about distance, time, and speed. They also showcased the STEM services they offer to youth which includes robotics, ROV’s, microcontrollers, and science hands on activities. Argonne National Laboratory educators introduced the Oleo sponge. Attendees were amazed at how this sponge is not like household sponges. The Oleo Sponge, a sponge invented at Argonne National Laboratory, only absorbs oil and not water. Then, they had participants become scientists and try out a related hands-on experimental activity revolving around the concept of hydrophobicity, fear of water. Finally, Scientists for Tomorrow, Columbia College used accessible materials to learn how to build different musical instruments and play!
Project Exploration is pleased to continue moving this work on the West Side forwards through the incredible potential of the STEM Learning Center.