Sean Walsh, left, MetaMedia Center mentor and North-western University researcher for FUSE, helps kids who go on to help their peers climb the steps of a FUSE challenge.Photo by Mary Mumbrue

The FUSE is lit; something exciting is in motion.

FUSE, an interest-driven learning experience created by Northwestern University researchers for pre-teens and teens, is in play at the Y MetaMedia Center and the Evanston Public Library Teen Loft. Kids chose the name for the teen-centered program, which FUSEs fun and serious purpose.

FUSE comes with weighty expectations: It is intended to engage pre-teens and teens in science, technology, engineering, arts/design and mathematics (STEAM) while fostering the development of 21st-century skills.

At first glance, the FUSE studio in the Y MetaMedia Center appears too lightweight to handle such a task. The studio consists of little more than a table holding computers that are loaded with the core FUSE activities known as “challenges.” But these challenges are not to be underestimated. They hold the promise of turning reluctant learners into creative and independent problem-solvers.

There are presently some two dozen FUSE challenges in areas such as robotics, electronics, phone app development, architectural design and 3-D printing, with more constantly in development. A short video introduces each of them to whichever teen logs into the computer. The first step in each challenge is designed for quick success. The initial task in “Build Your Dream House,” for example, requires only that the participant click on some tools to draw the walls, roof, door and windows of a small home.

Users are encouraged to sample challenges. Once they have settled on one, they embark on a process called “leveling up,” stepping up at their own speed to progressively more difficult tasks. Along the way, they are acquiring skills like adaptive problem-solving, creativity, self-directed learning, persistence and grit.

If the challenges look suspiciously like video games, the resemblance is intentional. The creators of FUSE, Drs. Kemi Jona and Reed Stevens, are Northwestern University School of Education and Social Policy researchers who piloted the FUSE program in 2011. They regard video games not as time-wasters but as valuable educational models.

An academic who says he is “known for looking at learning at home” and for “thinking about learning more broadly than in school,” Dr. Stevens videotaped kids gaming at home and says he found it “remarkable how much they learn.” He and his colleague began to wonder what they could do to get kids interested in subjects they normally avoid.

Video games, with their immediate appeal and increasing degrees of difficulty, would provide the vehicle they needed to investigate how learners catch fire.

What the researchers observe as kids pursue the FUSE challenges may help them answer such fundamental questions as “How do kids get interested in something?” and “How does what they do in school prepare them for life?” Their answers could enhance the current approach to education, offering alternatives that more successfully engage learners. “There is pretty good multi-decade evidence that kids are not deeply interested in any subject” in school, they say.

Already, Dr. Stevens says, they are “seeing evidence that [FUSE] affects what [kids] do outside school.” He and Dr. Jona refer to FUSE as an “on-ramp” – not a destination, but an entry to something beyond. They illustrate the metaphor with the story of a group of kids who worked the FUSE solar-car-building challenge and “got so interested they formed a club to pursue solar-car-building on their own.”

It is that kind of excitement they are seeking to inFUSE into traditional classrooms.

While the workplace now “puts a premium on entrepreneurship,” on “being an innovator” and a “creative thinker,” Dr. Stevens says, school does not give students a chance to “practice” these skills.

What he and Dr. Jona devised with FUSE is a kind of stealth-learning program that wraps fundamental STEAM principles in an appealing video-game format. Digital media, they say, provide a “productive structure” that helps kids learn how to fail and then try again rather than being “kicked out” as they sometimes are in school.

Kids like FUSE, the professors say, because it is so different from school.

For one thing, FUSE allows kids to choose which challenge to tackle and whether to do it alone or in a group. And there are no grades. “Grading everything,” Mr. Stevens says, “makes kids risk-averse. We want them to be able to think for themselves.”

Honors-track students have a certain flexibility, Drs. Jona and Stevens say. But kids who “aren’t necessarily good at formal academics,” they say, often lack an outlet for their talents. One of their goals is “to give every kid a chance to be innovative, creative.”

Sean Walsh, who has a master’s degree in sociology from the University of Chicago, works half time in the FUSE studio of the MetaMedia Center as teacher, librarian, youth worker and half time as a FUSE researcher. He is on hand to help kids find their way to FUSE amid the many activities in the Center – and to make suggestions if they get stuck on a challenge. Kids are encouraged to be flexible and, most important, to “ask a friend” when they are frustrated, Mr. Walsh says.

When a FUSE studio “gets going,” Drs. Jona and Stevens say, “kids become the experts. Helping others figure something out is a skill. It’s kids helping kids.”

Thirteen-year-old Mateo Campoverde, a Chute Middle School eighth-grader, is a shining example. He introduces himself as a FUSE ambassador, a title he achieved by coming to the Center first on Saturdays and then three or four days a week this summer. With a click, he opens the home page, an expert ready to show a newcomer how a FUSE challenge works.

He and Dr. Stevens are “gratified at the growth” of their program, Dr. Jona says. This fall there will be 6,000 kids involved at 53 FUSE sites – at schools, libraries and drop-in centers in three states. FUSE is embedded in the Schaumburg schools, and talks are underway about how best to incorporate a FUSE studio at Evanston Township High School. Farther afield, Dr. Stevens will be setting up a studio in an elementary school in Finland – welcome recognition for FUSE, he says, from an educational system much admired around the world.