Students at Dawes Elementary School prepare a healthier version of ice cream that also tastes good as part of the Science Club’s science of food curriculum.RoundTable photo

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Science Club, an after-school program developed five years ago by Science in Society (SiS) in partnership with the Pedersen-McCormick Boys & Girls Club of Chicago, is being piloted in Evanston in partnership with Youth Organizations Umbrella (Y.O.U.).

SiS is an office at Northwestern University dedicated to science outreach and public engagement. Michael Kennedy, SIS’s director, holds a Ph.D. in biochemistry. Rebeca Daugherty, its assistant director, holds a Ph.D. in cell biology.

“It’s been really successful at the Chicago boys and girls club since 2009,” Dr. Daugherty told the RoundTable. “We’re ready to go to the next phase where we’re spreading it out to other sites, other communities. We’re bringing that model, the near-peer mentoring, the long-term youth mentoring to Evanston.”

So far the pilot in Evanston has offered two sessions. In the first session, three scientists worked with a small group of students at Dawes Elementary School in an engineer-focused module in which youth designed and built a simple prosthetic hand for a fictional girl in Afghanistan. In the second session, the students examined some of their favorite junk foods and worked to develop a healthier version of these recipes. (See accompanying article.)

This summer the plan is to scale up the program to include approximately 30 students through Y.O.U.’s summer camp, said Dr. Daugherty.

“We think this partnership is thrilling,” Seth Green, executive director of Y.O.U., told the RoundTable. “We feel very fortunate to have the expertise of Northwestern University as a partner in our neighborhood, who cares so deeply about Evanston and about educational opportunity for all. For us, this has been just a great example of how a community institution and a great university can together do more than either of us can do alone. It’s a great example of us bringing our talents together for collective impact.”

The Chicago-Based Program
The program at Pedersen-McCormick Boys & Girls Club in Uptown is an after-school mentoring program that is designed to engage approximately 60 middle school students in science through fun, hands-on activities.

“The science club at Chicago is really about testing a new model for science education, where scientists from Northwestern are mentoring small groups of kids and really challenging them to develop critical thinking skills. We call it scientific habits of mind,” said Dr. Daugherty.

A new 10-week session begins each fall, winter and spring quarter. NU graduate students and staff serve as mentors, guiding small groups of club members through the Science Club curriculum, which changes each quarter.  

Science Club meets once a week; each year, a Science Club member receives 50 hours of mentor-led, engaging and challenging science instruction.

As an example, Dr. Kennedy described the engineering focused module, called “Get a Grip!” which was offered at both the Chicago and Evanston sites. “The scenario is a young girl in Afghanistan loses the use of her hand in a land mine incident,” he said. “The kids are challenged to design a prosthetic hand for her that’s functional and that meets the requirements she has for daily life. Science Club members need to design the hand with materials we could get in a store in Afghanistan, things like wire, hooks, PVC pipe, sponges, and duct tape. Kids learn how to identify a problem, brainstorm solutions, develop a prototype, test, and revise. The cycle is often repeated several times. Ultimately, they present their design in a competition-style finale.”

“NeuroSports” introduces youth to the field of neurobiology learning how the brain and nervous system are involved in sports and athletic performance. Each week, small groups design a new, open-ended experiment to examine the role of reaction time, sidedness, depth perception, balance and memory in their favorite sports. At the end of the module, the students apply their knowledge to help a struggling athlete improve his or her sports performance.

In the “Clean Water Challenge,” students are exposed to the global water crisis, and they are challenged to engineer approaches to improve water quality for developing nations.

Dr. Daugherty said they surveyed kids in developing the curriculum and “we used their input for inspiration. … We hoped to plug into topics they’re already thinking about.” She added that the curriculum “challenges kids through hands-on experimentation where they are responsible for solving a problem. We call it a grand challenge.”

“We invest a lot of time designing the curriculum,” says Dr. Kennedy. “CPS teachers, Boys & Girls Club staff, and our graduate student mentors have all played critical roles. There’s a lot of complexity behind the scenes, but for the kids it feels natural and fun. That’s our goal. A program like this really develops kids’ academic mindset and critical thinking skills.”

The prepared curriculum for each unit comprises about 30 pages, plus an appendix. Teachers in several Chicago Public Schools are using the curriculum in their school-based programs.

Dr. Kennedy said they also spend a lot of time training mentors. When Science Club started out, “It was clear the mentors needed training. They asked for more support and direction,” said Dr. Kennedy. “We had to step back and design a program, a series of training sessions to acculturate them to what it means to be a mentor, what to expect the first quarter, and how to navigate the bumps that inevitably happen when working with energetic kids at a Boys & Girls Club.”

The training includes lessons on communication, teaching best practices, the importance of understanding cultural values and norms, and how to be responsive to community partners.

SiS regularly checks in with the mentors and discusses specific issues with them, said Dr. Daugherty. “They definitely have tons of support and training in how to do what we do,” she said.

Each session culminates with an event, such as a science fair, where club members present their work to their families and friends at the boys and girls club.

Success of the Chicago-Based Program

SiS assesses the academic impact of the Science Club program in Chicago, using a student’s performance in school-based science fairs. At Chicago Public Schools, all students in grades 6-8 complete a science project, and they make an oral presentation and answer questions posed by independent judges about their project at the fair.

The judges rate the students’ oral presentations using a CPS scientific skills rubric, which takes into account knowledge gained, scientific approach, variables, the control group, reliability of data, validity of conclusion and other factors.

SiS analyzes the skills data using a multivariate regression model to isolate the effect of attending Science Club. This controls for confounding variables like science aptitude, school attended, grade level, and gender. 

The analysis showed that the “effect size” of participating in Science Club was 0.7 of a standard deviation, Dr. Kennedy told the RoundTable.

This is a huge gain.

SiS says this is equivalent to a 30% increase in science skills compared to well-matched cohorts.

Another way of measuring success is to look at student engagement. “The science club at the boys and girls club in Chicago has a quarter to quarter retention rate of about 85-90%,” said Dr. Kennedy. “For an elective after-school program in a high-mobility community, the retention rate is almost off the charts.”

SiS is also tracking longer-term outcomes, and “we’re seeing unbelievable results,” said Dr. Kennedy. In the 10 years before the program, out of 100 kids tracked, only one chose to pursue a STEM career. In the last two years, out of 20 kids tracked, eight are going into a STEM career – either going into college or taking courses in a community college, such as pharmacy or nursing.  All were involved in the Science Club ecosystem at the Pedersen-McCormick Boys & Girls Club.

The Pilot with Y.O.U. in Evanston

Science Club at Dawes Elementary School has been offered as part of Y.O.U.’s after-school program at the school.

Y.O.U.’s program in the elementary schools focuses on “life skills and enrichment,” Maria Rassiwalla, director of Y.O.U.’s after-school programs in Evanston, told the RoundTable. In enrichment, students can choose to participate in arts education, STEM, and sports and recreation. “This fits perfectly into our STEM initiative,” she said.

Even though the program is offered to fourth- and fifth-graders at Dawes, SiS is using the same curriculum it uses with middle school students in Chicago.

“When we designed the Science Club curriculum, it was intended to be very flexible, because we recognize that when you’re working with urban populations there’s going to be a range of ability and a huge range of interest,” said Dr. Daugherty. “The curriculum can be adapted to the group, so it can be made more challenging for gifted students and simplified if kids are behind.”

Emily Roth, Y.O.U.’s after-school program manager at Dawes, thought the middle school curriculum would be appropriate for the kids at Dawes, said Dr. Daugherty, adding, “It was actually perfect. … I think the kids in Evanston, at least the ones we were working with, were just operating at a higher level, so we could come in with a more challenging curriculum for them.”

SiS has not yet evaluated the Dawes program using hard data as in Chicago. At this stage, Dr. Daugherty said the Dawes program is in the pilot stage, and “what we’re most interested in is whether the collaboration with our community partner is going well and if the program is a good fit for the partners.”

From the kids’ perspective, 100% of the kids in the first session participated in the second session, and attendance was high in both sessions – a sign of engagement.

Ms. Roth said the first session in which students designed a prosthetic hand for a fictional girl in Afghanistan “went extremely well.” She said students explored the culture of Afghanistan, and the project “created a situation where science was just more relevant to real life. … The interest level dramatically increased. It was a huge success.”

The second session dealing with the science of food was even more successful, said Ms. Roth. Some of the kids are involved in cooking at home, sometimes for younger siblings. “For them to start getting the knowledge and skills to understand the components of cooking and what it means to modify and substitute some ingredients for healthy ones, that’s a great foundation,” she said.

A survey of the students after both sessions showed that their curiosity, interest, and excitement greatly increased due to the sessions. “They’re interested in learning more,” said Ms. Roth. “These kids are truly curious and interested in science probably because we expanded what science meant for elementary students in that program.”

She added that the program provided another benefit. “The scientists were a diverse group of folks from Northwestern. …The kids not only made a connection with them, but they can see themselves as a scientist. It became a very practical and realistic track for them. This is a very cool program.”

“We’re definitely looking to continue the project at Dawes and to help the partnership grow,” said Ms. Roth.

The Y.O.U. Summer Program

SiS and Y.O.U. are planning a Science Club program this summer for third- through fifth-graders at the Washington Elementary School site and for sixth- through eighth-graders at the Nichols Middle School site. The plan is to serve between 10 and 15 students at each site. So, far SiS has a dozen volunteers from NU interested in serving as mentors. The details are still being worked out.

Dr. Daugherty said the summer program may provide some insight on whether “our model is a good fit for the elementary school kids alone or maybe it works for middle school as well.” She said what they learn through the summer may help them decide what is the “best place” to offer the program.

Long-Term in Evanston

On a longer-term basis, Ms. Rassiwalla, said, “We’re very eager to and have full confidence that we’ll continue to partner with them [SiS] in the fall and also next spring.”

Ms. Rassiwalla, added that this past semester Y.O.U. staff and volunteers used NU’s Science Club curriculum at King Lab. “I know that some of our middle school program managers and other program managers at the elementary schools are eager to have an NU scientist come in and provide their program. It’s sort of a question at their end, if they have the capacity with the volunteers to come in and serve multiple locations. … There’s definite interest in having volunteers come in.”

“The curriculum was a hit” at King Lab, Ms. Rassiwalla added. “The students responded very well to it.”

When asked if NU planned on expanding its program with Y.O.U. in Evanston, Dr. Kennedy said, “You don’t make any goals without the community partner directing them. I feel like we’re guests in their program, we’re furthering their mission. If they say we’d like you to bring this to three other sites next year, then the ball is in my court to say, ‘Do we have the funding to do it, do we have the mentors to do it?’”

Dr. Daugherty was likewise cautious to say, “We try not to get too far ahead of our community partners. We’re going to work with them to see what the next plans are.’
She added, “Northwestern is based in Evanston, and we feel like there’s a responsibility to serve the population here as well. There’s definitely a large contingent of low-income underrepresented people in Evanston, and they deserve to have quality programs as well. So we want to be there to help.”

Mr. Green said SIS’s science club “fits our program perfectly, and so the more we can deliver a model like this, the better.” He recognized there are capacity issues because the program depends on NU volunteers and other resources. “What we aim towards is getting this to more kids consistent with the capacity of the program.”

The original federal funding for the program, a Science Education Partnership Award from the National Institutes of Health, was for five years, Dr. Kennedy told the RoundTable. However, the funding expired at the end of last month. He said oftentimes programs like Science Club end once the initial grant runs out. However, when SiS develops a project and it is deemed successful, he works tirelessly to fundraise so the program can continue. For Science Club, he has obtained funding from two philanthropic organizations to continue the program for the coming year. He is actively seeking additional funds, in partnership with the Boys & Girls Club.

It is likely that an SiS program will be housed in Y.O.U.’s new building on Church Street, just across the street from the high school, or in another community location, said Dr. Kennedy.

“It’s important these programs are offered in the neighborhoods of the kids we want to serve,” he said. “It builds identity, ownership, and trust.

“The challenge for us is that science, by its very nature, is supply- and equipment-intensive. From a cost perspective, this makes it a challenge to keep replicating sites. The beauty of the Boys & Girls club ‘science lab’ model is that kids from many schools in a neighborhood have one place in the community where they go to learn science after school. At the Boys & Girls club all the kids know they have a real science lab upstairs. It has built tremendous identity around science – both as a way of thinking and as a career path that is wide open to them.”

“We have a vision for a maker lab in our new building,” said Mr. Green. “Right now it’s more conceptual in nature and we’re filling in the specifics. Mike [Kennedy] is a core thought-partner in that. We don’t yet have an answer what that will look like.”

Mr. Green added that Y.O.U. is discussing how to develop the maker lab to best serve kids with Dr. Kennedy, Kemi Jona, director of the Office of STEM Education Partnerships at Northwestern, and with McGaw Y.

Mentors are Re-energized

“The kids are the outcome variable here that everyone focuses on, but the mentors behind the scenes are equally important because they are our multiplier, the future science faculty and professionals who now have the skills to be deeply involved in science education wherever they end up,” said Michael Kennedy, director of Science in Society. “As part of their scientific training, they are getting real community-based educational training. “What our evaluator has found in interviews with our mentors is the mentors’ batteries get recharged. Graduate students may work in the lab 50 or 60 hours a week. The opportunity to spend a couple hours outside of the lab sharing their scientific knowledge and enthusiasm with at risk kids is incredibly re-energizing. They know they are making a difference in young kids’ lives.“They tell our evaluator it makes them better scientists. It reminds them why they went into science,” said Dr. Kennedy. “We’re doing long-term studies on the mentors. It’s incredibly impactful for the careers they go into. This is really a two-for program. We’re training scientists and kids at the same time.”Preparing Third-Grade TeachersScience in Society has received a five-year, $1.2 million grant to establish a program that provides training to 64 third-grade teachers in Chicago Public Schools to support the implementation of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). 

As part of the program, Science in Society plans to train teachers in authentic NGSS science practices and the nature of science. They also plan to establish a summer camp at the Boys & Girls Club in Chicago at which the third-grade teachers will have an opportunity to try out new instructional approaches and NGSS-aligned assessment instruments, and at the same time provide high-quality, engaging summer learning opportunities for at-risk youth. “We really think we can have an impact on how third grade science is taught – for teachers who do not have science backgrounds,” said Michael Kennedy, director of Science in Society. “My hope,” said Dr. Kennedy, “is that if this proves effective, we can bring a similar model to Evanston.”

Larry Gavin

Larry Gavin was a co-founder of the Evanston RoundTable in 1998 and assisted in its conversion to a non-profit in 2021. He has received many journalism awards for his articles on education, housing and...