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Picking Up STEAM

A person talking to a group of peopleLast March, just days after health concerns related to COVID-19 closed all local schools, libraries, and parks, Northwestern University learning sciences professor Nichole Pinkard (PhD98) was flooded with calls and emails from panicked family and friends who asked, “How do we keep our kids engaged?”

Pinkard, a computer scientist and one of the world’s leading experts on building informal educational ecosystems, sprang into action.

First, she created, a digital platform featuring content developed by Northwestern researchers that helps children discover free activities and programs in science, technology, engineering, arts, and math (STEAM).

Then Pinkard helped launch a virtual version of STEAMbassadors, transforming what was to be an in-person mentorship program into one that could flourish online.

STEAMville and the STEAMbassadors program illustrate how SESP’s Office of Community Education Partnerships (OCEP)—led by the dynamic duo of Pinkard and assistant dean Amy Pratt— nimbly pivoted to serve the community during a crisis (see page 10).

The OCEP team was able to rise to the occasion in large part due to the longstanding relationships with community partners that had been formed and cultivated decades before the global pandemic struck.

“STEAMville’s content is the result of years of education research, relationship building, and working with schools and community organizations,” Pinkard says. “Now we’re collaborating in ways that would be difficult or impossible during normal times.”

STEAMville, which is curated by a team of curriculum designers, former teachers, and software developers within SESP, offers everything from music mixing and robotics to 3D design. The content is organized into playlists, each with a series of activities and projects connected by a central theme or topic. It includes links to Northwestern-developed resources—such as TunePad, a tool that SESP learning and computer scientist Mike Horn devised for creating music with the Python programming language, and the STEM and design challenges of FUSE, an inventive learning infrastructure created by SESP learning scientist Reed Stevens—for use in middle schools and informal learning settings.

STEAMville also includes content from partners like Project Exploration, a Chicago-based youth program that features interactive online workshops and livestreamed sessions on science topics led by trained mentors.

“It’s a connected learning community,” Pinkard says. “We’re trying to improve access to high-quality STEAM education for underserved children by linking families and educators with learning opportunities across schools, the neighborhood, and online.”

Powered by mentoring

Programs on STEAMville are facilitated by college students who have participated in the STEAMbassadors program, the ambitious community mentoring initiative that OCEP was set to launch in person in March 2020, just prior to the start of the pandemic. The program prepares Black and Latinx young adults from two- and four-year colleges to engage elementary and middle school-aged youth in STEAM-related activities.

As the program’s website announced last spring, “STEAMville will come alive with STEAMbassadors as DIY creators, makers, coders, instructors, mentors, community builders, (virtual) tour guides, assessors, and coaches focusing on the STEAM interests and superpowers of the youth of their communities.” From their training, the college students gain foundational computer science skills, including coding, digital making, and computational thinking. They’re also exposed to a network of partners and an ecosystem of professional learning opportunities for added growth. Beyond technical skills, the STEAMbassadors program gives young adults the confidence and drive to give back to their own communities as role models.

“This is a movement,” says Shawn Jackson, president of Harry S Truman College, part of the City Colleges of Chicago and a lead STEAMbassadors partner.

Cultivating STEM identities

A person wearing gloves and standing next to a tableResearch suggests that young people working as mentors develop a strong “STEM identity,” the ability to think of themselves as science learners, science users, and even as contributors to science. This identity makes them more likely to continue to cultivate science literacy or persist on educational pathways toward science careers or STEM-related professions, says Kristen Perkins, partnership coordinator of the Northwestern University–Evanston Township High School partnership office.

“I know how valuable mentors have been in my life. I joined STEAMbassadors because if I could become that valuable to someone else, it would be awesome,” says DePaul University graduate student Marianella Osorio, who majored in user experience design as an undergraduate.

At the same time, “if a middle school girl is not participating in STEM activities like robotics or coding club, the data suggest that no matter how she does academically, she won’t decide to pursue a STEM major in college,” Pinkard says.

“I cried a little bit”

OCEP’s STEAMbassadors program is part of Chicago Youth Service Corps, a signature component of Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s My CHI. My Future. initiative, which, like STEAMville, connects young people to meaningful learning opportunities.

Through a partnership among the City of Chicago, Chicago Public Schools, DePaul, and Northwestern, Pinkard and her OCEP team also created the digital infrastructure for My CHI. My Future.

Several program participants say the experience clarified what they hope to do in the future. Sharif King, a social work major at Truman, calls his STEAMbassadorship his training wheels: “Someday I want to have my own agency where kids can get help from me and have someone to look up to,” he says.

Perhaps the clearest sign that STEAMbassadors can start changing lives came during Zoom calls: nearly all the STEAMbassadors added “mentor” to their screen names, and soon the middle schoolers followed suit. When mentor Malik Madkins saw a screen full of children with “mentor” as a part of their names, he grew emotional.

“I never knew I could do that much to inspire the kids to change who they are, to be a role model,” Madkins says. “I cried a little bit, but they didn’t see the tears.”