Envisioning STEM Learning Opportunities for Chicago’s Austin Neighborhood

by | May 30, 2018 | Access to STEM Learning, Broadening Participation, West Side STEM Learning Center | 0 comments

Building a STEM Learning Ecosystem on the West Side of Chicago

Over the past two years, Project Exploration has cultivated deep relationships with key stakeholders in the Austin neighborhood in the effort to identify and close opportunity gaps in STEM learning for the community’s youth. As a result of these conversations, Project Exploration is leveraging available space at one of the local public schools to develop the West Side STEM Learning Center (SLC). In Fall 2017, the Hive Fund for Connected Learning, now the Chicago Learning Exchange funded a series of planning meetings with key stakeholders, including community members, to discuss the development of this neighborhood hub for STEM learning. These planning meetings had two goals:

  1. Develop an understanding of the needs and priorities of the community itself from key stakeholders; and
  2. Use data to understand the academic and economic context of the Austin community.  

Listening Sessions Reveal Four Key Takeaways

Listening sessions revealed several key takeaways. First, the Austin community boasts a wide range of stakeholders who are engaged deeply in the community and support programming for youth that will broaden students’ understanding of science, provide authentic and meaningful experiences, and lead to gainful employment. Participants at the listening sessions represented Chicago Public Schools, Chicago Park District, Institute for Nonviolence Chicago, Austin Coming Together (ACT), community members and some community-based organizations. Second, community members emphasized the need for families to feel invested and engaged in the STEM Learning Center. Third, stakeholders recommended that the STEM Learning Center be inclusive of students from across Austin rather than just serving students from George Leland Elementary School and Michele Clark Academic Prep Magnet High School.  Fourth, students expressed a desire for recognition of their work and learning at the STEM Learning Center, with opportunities to “level up” into leadership positions.

Project Exploration Pilots Programs at the STEM Learning Center

Project Exploration launched two pilot programs at the STEM Learning Center to showcase youth engagement with STEM OST opportunities and to demonstrate how a partner outside of Austin can connect to the assets and opportunities within the neighborhood. Having students in the STEM Learning Center through these pilots allows for continued recruitment by word of mouth as well as provides an introduction for what after-school programs will be like in the STEM Learning Center. The first pilot is in partnership with Columbia College’s Scientists for Tomorrow, serving ten elementary and middle school students from the community.  The program worked with students to learn about electrical systems and create their own LED ornament. The second program, facilitated by Project Exploration is STEM Quest, where students are introduced to a variety of STEM topics to explore STEM. The work produced by the students through these pilot programs was showcased at the STEM Learning Center, and the students themselves provided input and recommendations for how they envision this new space as a unique youth- and family-centered hub for STEM learning in the community.

Moving Forward, Getting Down to the Nuts and Bolts of Summer 2018 at the STEM Learning Center

Project Exploration continues to create opportunities for community stakeholders to inform and advise what strategies should be used to grow and develop STEM learning opportunities. In preparation for summer programming, Project Exploration has partnered with the Chicago Architecture Foundation and Columbia College, through a Chicago Learning Exchange grant, to offer robust STEM Learning opportunities. Convening community stakeholders and program partners, Project Exploration hosted a meeting at the STEM Learning Center on Friday, May 25th to work through the nuts and bolts of a high-quality STEM Summer Camp.

There was a diverse group of Austin stakeholders, including representatives from the George Leland Elementary School, Manufacturing Renaissance, Austin Coming Together (ACT), and BUILD. The Chicago Architecture Foundation with Project Exploration facilitated a discussion to reveal the following;

What’s worth experiencing?

  • Changing the narrative of schools and build a positive identity.
  • Continuity of program opportunities for participants from summer to school year.

What’s worth knowing?

  • How does STEM learning opportunities connect to other issues such as academics, economic development, and violence prevention?
  • How to tap into student interest and create a demand for STEM learning opportunities that parents support as well?

What are critical goals for youth during the summer?

  • Leave the program and share experience with family, siblings, teachers, friends, etc.
  • Develop positive relationships
  • Have fun!!!

STEM Learning Center an investment for STEM learning on the West Side of Chicago

Over the summer we will continue to reflect on how we can collectively tackle the key takeaways and look forward to hosting more of these meetings, both to listen to community needs, and to update the community on how programs are running.  The STEM Learning Center will serve as an extension of the community’s promising investment in STEM learning for the Austin neighborhood and the west side at large. The programs provided at the STEM Learning Center will provide opportunities for youth, adults, and teachers to expand their STEM skills, engage with materials and resources not readily available within schools, and provide work-based opportunities for students to develop skills for today’s jobs.

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