Mathiessen and Starved Rock State Parks

Mathiessen and Starved Rock State Parks

For six weeks this summer, more than a dozen youth participated in a Project Exploration program that explored three different scientific fields, as well as methods for communicating both science and their experiences to the public. Led by Elena Schroeter Ph.D. Candidate, this first-ever STEM Discoveries Program incorporated two weeks of paleontology, one week of forensics, and two weeks of engineering into summer-long, hands-on learning experience. These adventures culminated in a video report that students scripted, recorded, and edited with Tracee Brock, from Free Spirit Media.

During the paleontology unit of this program, students investigated not only ancient life, but the geologic history of our planet. Beginning at the formation of the Earth and traveling through 4.6 billion years of time, students visited the Evolving Planet exhibition at the Field Museum to gain an understanding of how the world and its inhabitants have changed over the eons. For many students, this was their first introduction to both the concept of geologic time, and the Field Museum. From this starting point, students learned about how to “read” history in rocks by building models of stratigraphic rock layers out of cake and frosting (and of course, gummy candies for fossils). Those rock layers were much tastier than the ones we sampled on our all-day hiking trip to Mathiessen and Starved Rock State Parks (in order to assess their clay content)! There, geologist Bill Shields led the students on an unforgettable adventure into a canyon and behind a waterfall, to the amazement of some students who had not traveled much outside of cities. Back in Chicago, students got an anatomy lesson by examining the bones inside their fried chicken lunch, and comparing them with the skeletons of other animals. The knowledge that chickens, cows, and all other vertebrates have the same bones as humans will not soon be forgotten at dinner time!


Mock Crime Scene

forensics 2

Collecting Evidence

During the forensics unit, Illinois State Police Forensic Examiner Lisa Gilbert set up a mock crime scene, and instructed the students in the proper methodology for collecting evidence. By lifting latent fingerprints and bagging and tagging the smallest details, students gained an appreciation for how rigorous crime scene processing must be, and how closely one must observe to catch all the clues. Once their evidence was collected, Pete Hill taught students the proper way to interpret it. Lessons ranged from how to differentiate and identify fingerprints, to how to read blood splatter patterns, to how to use insect larvae to tell time of death. For each of these activities (and many more), students participated in hands-on demonstrations to get the feel for what the investigators in their favorite television police dramas really (or really don’t) do.

For the engineering unit, US Army Corps of Engineers member Christel Johnson introduced students to the different types of engineering fields, as well as an in depth look at the job of civil engineers. Planning and design activities challenged students to think about all aspects of building development, from labor needs and costs, to required materials, to legal considerations. Students then got to experience engineering by visiting the Corps’ shoreline restoration project, which is currently underway. Students not only walked through the history and planning of the restoration, but walked through the project itself by collecting sediment samples from the lakefront at a beach that has not yet been renovated. To cap off the unit, students toured a newly restored section of the shoreline, and discussed the design intentions of the engineers for each new lakefront feature they enjoyed. Between the beach, the children’s park, the harbor, the skate park, and a multitude of other attractions, everyone agreed that the 31st Street Beach is a place to return to explore more than just engineering!



Throughout each of these units, students worked with Free Spirit Youth Media to document their experiences and share them with the world. They participated in all aspects of the development of a video featuring the STEM Discoveries Program, including filming, scripting, interviewing, editing. The end result was a superb piece of media that will complement the knowledge and memories the students take away from the program.

Students also gained the Chicago Summer of Learning (CSOL) badges and started building their digital portfolio.  They joined thousands of young people that spent their summer exploring the themes of Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Math (STEAM). PE was amongst 100 youth-serving organizations, colleges and universities, museums and cultural institutions, philanthropists, businesses, and citizens that partnered with the City of Chicago to carry out this summer initiative.   As a result, PE students enjoyed opportunities to sharpen their skills while earning four digital badges: Forensics, Paleontology, Engineering and Media.  Students that completed the program where able to level up to the All Access Challenge Badge which was a collaboration with the Adler Planetarium, Chicago Botanic Garden, Field Museum and the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum.  PE students and staff participated in the CSOL city-wide showcase that was held on Friday, August 16, 2013 at the Museum of Science and Industry.

CSOL captured the students during the first day of their Forensic Unit where students collected evidence from a crime scene.

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This