In the photo above, Elena Deamant is one of the District 65 students who completed a project for her geometry class at McGaw Y’s MetaMedia lab. She designed a chalice using a TinkerCad 3-D design tool. She is shown taking a picture of the chalice as it was being created by a 3-D printer at the lab.

 School District 65, in collaboration with Evanston Township High School District 202 and nine other organizations, has embarked upon a collective initiative to achieve STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) literacy for all Evanston youth. Discussions have been ongoing for about a year, said Kirby Callam, project director, who presented the initiative called “EvanSTEM” to District 65 School Board members on Aug. 17.

The collaboration will bring together the school districts and organizations that provide out-of-school STEM learning opportunities for youth in Evanston. They will work together, align their programs, and develop new programs to improve access and better engage students who have traditionally underperformed or have been underrepresented in STEM programs in Evanston.

“We want to create a living ecosystem of STEM providers, one that grows and changes over time,” said Mr. Callam. “We don’t have everybody at the table yet. We’re still looking at business and corporate partners.”

The current partners are the school districts, McGaw YMCA; Youth & Opportunity United (Y.O.U.); Family Focus; Evanston Public Library; City of Evanston’s Parks, Recreation and Community Services Department; Science in Society at Northwestern University; and the Office of STEM Education Partnerships at Northwestern University.

The benefit of collaboration between some of the partners of EvanSTEM is already evident. In March, McGaw Y opened its MetaMedia Youth Center which provides middle-schoolers a place to explore, learn and create with state-of-the-art computers, iPads, recording equipment, cameras and more. The center was developed in partnership with NU’s Office of STEM and Y.O.U., with funding from the Lewis-Sebring Family Foundation.

Last year, NU’s Science in Society partnered with Y.O.U. to offer a creative after-school science program for kids at Dawes elementary school, and the program was offered at Washington and Nichols schools over the summer. NU scientists work with small groups of kids who are challenged to solve a problem using hands-on experimentation. The curricula for the program are inspired by kids’ input and plugs into topics they are already thinking about, said Rebecca Dougherty, assistant director of Science in Society. 

FUSE, an interest-driven learning experience created by NU researchers for pre-teens and teens, is being used at the MetaMedia Center and the Evanston Public Library Teen Loft. There are currently about two dozen FUSE challenges in areas such as robotics, electronics, phone app development, architectural design, and 3-D printing. Talks are underway to incorporate a FUSE studio at ETHS.

“This is a fabulous opportunity” to have the two school districts, two offices from NU, and  many community organizations sit around the table and “have the space to talk about how to do things differently and more effectively,” said Paul Goren, superintendent of District 65. “That excites me no end.”

EvanSTEM is supported by a three-year $640,000 grant from the Noyce Foundation. Dr. Goren said he is a member of the Board of Trustees of the foundation, but abstained from voting on the grant.

“Collaborations among STEM program providers are growing across the country,” said Ron Ottinger, executive director of the Noyce Foundation in a prepared statement. “What makes Evanston’s effort unique is the leadership role of the two school districts seeking out those collaborations with a vision to improve STEM engagement, participation, and student performance for those who have been turned off to science, engineering, technology, and math.”

EvanSTEM will be governed by a “Direction Circle,” which will act like a board of directors. The direction circle will be led by District 65, and be composed of key STEM providers, supporters, designers, participants and professionals in Evanston.

Underserved Youth in Evanston

About 41% of the students attending District 65 are from low-income households, and 43% come from backgrounds typically underrepresented in STEM-related fields, said Mr. Callam.

And, there is a significant gap between the achievement of students who come from low-income households and that of other students in both math and science. In 2014, 25% of low-income students were on track to meet ACT’s college readiness benchmark in math (a score of 21 on the ACT), compared to 76% of non-low income students.

There is also a gender gap, said Mr. Callam. About 150 males were enrolled in at least one project-lead-the-way course at ETHS, compared to about 35 females.

While classroom instruction is obviously important, studies show that out-of-school learning in STEM programs can improve a student’s attitude, interest and knowledge in STEM. Access to quality out-of-school STEM programing is thus also a key factor in academic success.

While Evanston has a growing network of STEM learning opportunities, there are still gaps in some categories of STEM learning.

EvanSTEM’s grant proposal reports there are minimal opportunities for K-5 students to explore STEM in media arts/ digital tech or engineering design. Middle school students have few offerings in programs dealing with science exploration and experimentation.

In addition, the programs that target students who have traditionally under-performed or have been under-represented in STEM programs are few, and they are generally located in a few areas of the City that are not easily accessible to many children who need them the most, says EvanSTEM’s funding proposal. 

“Only 40% of the kids who need STEM are getting engaging STEM experiences, so we want to grow that number to 100%,” said Mr. Callam.

He said, “STEM is important because we’re developing their career skills, we’re expanding their ability to create and problem-solve, and we’re helping them master technical and critical thinking habits of mind which are all critical toward changing their trajectory in an academic and career setting.”

Michael Kennedy, director of Science in Society at NU, told the RoundTable, “For me, a big focus is making sure that low-income kids in Evanston have a lot of opportunities to get the enrichment and mentoring that is so important to their success. There are so many kids who have such great potential, who could take advantage of a no-cost, high-quality, recurring opportunity that dives a little deeper.”

When asked if the program would benefit other students, Mr. Callam said it would. “New STEM programs and activities will be available to all Evanston youth, though they will be targeted toward students who don’t have access to STEM.”

Building Continuous Pathways

One key goal is to build a STEM ecosystem in Evanston that provides continuous pathways for STEM learning from kindergarten through high school. 

EvanSTEM has already prepared a preliminary list of STEM programs in Evanston. But the plan is to create a more detailed “asset map” that will document the STEM programs, camps, clubs, projects, and workshops that are taking place now and log the type, program schedule, and the participation by age, race, income level, gender, and location, Mr. Callam told the RoundTable.

As part of this process, the group hopes to gain a deeper understanding of  how youth, particularly underrepresented and underperforming youth,  navigate through available STEM out-of-school opportunities and how those STEM programs impact academic outcomes.

“This data will help us identify the holes that exist within our K-12 STEM pathways,” said Mr. Callam. “We will use this information to develop guidelines and criteria for new program expansion.”

As an example, Mr. Callam says, “Northwestern’s FUSE program offers interest-based explorations on a wide range of STEM based activities, but it is only offered at McGaw Y and Evanston Public Library. So, if it is expanded to a school-based space at Chute or Oakton or Family Focus, then students living near those buildings who are interested will have access.”

Dr. Kennedy emphasizes the importance of building continuous pathways. He told the RoundTable, “We want to make sure we’re complementing each other’s efforts and filling gaps, not unnecessarily duplicating efforts.

“Unfortunately, siloed initiatives are a limitation in our society. EvanSTEM brings education providers and community groups together to strategize how best to provide a continuum of high quality education,” Dr. Kennedy said. “For example, if a third-grader develops interest in STEM in a summer program, it’s important for the student and his or her family to know their options for continuing to pursue this interest through elementary, middle, and even high school.”

“Very few communities do this effectively,” Dr. Kennedy continued. “Researchers are understanding this is a very important, necessary element of long-term change. You need all the parties in the community talking to one another.”

This fall, EvanSTEM plans to begin a back-mapping process to determine what programs need to be available starting when kids are in kindergarten to prepare them so they are where they need to be in twelfth grade to pursue a STEM career.

Mr. Callam told School Board members, “If you want kids to go from high school into college or computer science tracts, working backwards, ‘What does that pathway mean for a fifth-grader, a third-grader and a kindergartner, and what can we offer and start building on within the curriculum and after school and the summer? How do you get kids in their formation and how do you create and make sure those opportunities are there along the way so that by the time they get to high school, they’re ready to roll?’”

A team of 14 people has been formed to develop this framework.

Building Engaging Pathways

 Another key goal is to provide more interest-based, project-based, and engaged STEM learning. “We will also use the data gathered in developing the asset map to drive the development of new classroom and after-school learning experiences,” said Mr. Callam.

 “There are different ways to do teaching and learning in classrooms and in before- and after-school settings,” said Dr. Goren. “So there are opportunities for our educators to learn from some of the techniques that some of the out-of-school providers are using, and vice versa, some of the out-of-school providers can look at some of the work that we’re doing inside and build synergy so the kids’ experience has some synergy to it.”

Some of this is already happening. Some teachers at District 65 are drawing on and implementing approaches to STEM learning that are being used in out-of-school STEM programs. A geometry teacher at District 65 recently shifted from using a traditional classroom project which was to “build a 3-D figure to maximize volume while minimizing material” to a new one that used shape design software, a 3-D printer, and video editing to create a reflective documentary of the process and work. And this was done in collaboration with and completed at McGaw Y’s Meta-Media center.

Another example is Evanston Public Library worked with a Nichols Middle School’s librarian to create a Maker Faire at which students exhibited and explained what they learned about digital electronic explorations.

“Every teacher I talk to in the District lights up when I mention the chance to develop new, novel curricula with after-school educators and STEM staff from places like the Museum of Science and Industry or Northwestern,” said Mr. Callam. 

During the three-year grant period, Mr. Callam said EvanSTEM is not going to re-invent the way teaching and learning happen in the classroom, but will pilot some programs that bring interest-based STEM learning experiences taking place at out-of-school locations into the classroom.

If a pilot is successful, “we’ll work to implement it district-wide for the following year,” he said.

Out-of-school providers may also coordinate with classroom teachers so that the lessons students are learning in-school are reinforced in out-of-school programs, when and where it makes sense. Conceptually the after-school programming “builds upon and ‘blows up’ on what they’re learning during the school day,” said Mr. Callam. 

Some possibilities include “the creation of new programs during winter and spring breaks that are fun, engaging, hands-on STEM experiences that are direct extensions from the classroom lessons leading up to the break,” he said.

“Many years ago the education community didn’t recognize the strong relationship between out-of-school learning and longer-term academic success,” said Dr. Kennedy. “Now there’s the realization that in-school and out-of-school learning really complement each other, and they complement each other even better if teachers in schools are regularly communicating with out of school providers, and vice versa.”

Dr. Kennedy said the after-school programs offered by Science in Society in Chicago have 100% teacher buy-in because teachers are active participants in program design. Science in Society looks to provide students with learning opportunities teachers wish they could provide in the classroom but are unable to, because they are resource-constrained or are limited to 40 minute periods. “Evanston and Chicago public schools are full of amazing teachers. Our goal is to complement their hard work and support them wherever we can,” he said.

Dr. Goren added that the grant from the Noyce Foundation contemplates that teachers and out-of-school educators will work together and develop both teaching and learning modules and also professional learning modules. When developed, the intent is that the modules “can spread throughout the District.” He envisions that this process too will create synergy between both school districts and out-of-school providers.

Eric Witherspoon, superintendent of School District 202, told the RoundTable he thought partners in the collaboration will learn from ETHS teachers who specialize in STEM subjects, but he added that the learning process will be reciprocal. He thought the collaboration would assist ETHS address questions, such as, “How do we spur and feed that interest and excitement about STEM courses for young people if they haven’t already developed that when they come here. … How indeed do we think about being more engaging and engaging more students in our STEM programs?”

“I think we’re going to see just a great deal of value added, not only for the high school, not only for District 65, but for all the different partners who are trying to really enhance STEM education for children in the community,” said Dr. Witherspoon.

“My hope is that more and more, young people, as they come to ETHS, will be excited about STEM courses and also understand that regardless of your gender or your race, you belong in STEM courses,” he added.

Joining a National Network

While still in its beginning stages, EvanSTEM is already part of several prestigious national networks. Dr. Goren said the Noyce Foundation is the family foundation of Robert Noyce, a cofounder of Intel, and it has funded many STEM ecosystems throughout the country. EvanSTEM is the first STEM ecosystem funded by the foundation, though, where a school district or districts are primary partners.

“For us it’s a really nice opportunity to be part of a national network but also to be potentially one of the leaders of a national network from the angle of how can school districts do this work,” he said.

On Sept. 1, EvanSTEM was notified that it is one of 27 communities selected by the STEM Funders Network to pilot the national STEM Ecosystems Initiative. This project, built on research into successful STEM collaborations, seeks to nurture and scale effective STEM learning opportunities for all young people. An initial meeting will be hosted at the White House.

“Becoming part of this national network allows us to learn from and engage with colleagues from across the country who are working on innovative ways to approach STEM in their settings, both in school and out of school,” said Dr. Goren.

“In these learning communities, you learn so much and you can borrow and if I may ‘steal’ from other folks, their best practices, their innovative practices,” Dr. Goren added. “Being part of a network with 26 other partners that come from coast to coast is just a tremendous honor that we’re looking so much forward to participating in.”

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...