On Saturday, May 14, more than 110 K-8 students attended a four-hour Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) fest sponsored by EvanSTEM, Family Focus and Fleetwood-Jourdain Community Center in the City’s Fifth Ward. Seventy-eight percent of the students who attended were residents of the Fifth Ward, 85% were African American or Latino, and many were girls. By all accounts, the STEM fest was a resounding success.

EvanSTEM is sponsored by School District 65 and funded by the Noyce Foundation. It is a collaboration among School Districts 65 and 202 and nine other organizations that support or provide out-of-school STEM learning opportunities for youth in Evanston.

The Fifth Ward STEM Fest is one of a number of EvanSTEM’s initiatives to make STEM programs accessible to students who have traditionally been underrepresented in these programs in Evanston.

Generating Interest

The primary purpose of the Fifth Ward STEM Fest was to provide parents and their children “a chance for hands-on experiences and to bring to life what STEM means,” Kirby Callam, director of EvanSTEM, told the RoundTable.  “Many students think STEM  is for others who are ‘science people,’ and they think ‘I’m not one of them,’” Mr. Callam said. “So we’re trying to break down those walls a little bit. There are second-graders who don’t like math. It’s not because they’re not good at it. It’s just because they had a bad experience and they feel they’re not good at it, and so they want to run away from it.

“So here’s a chance to make science and math come to life, and for children to understand it’s actually fun.” Mr. Callam added, “A key part of the STEM fest was to get parents engaged and supportive. They get to see their children excited and they think, ‘I want you to do more of this and let’s start finding ways for you to do that.’”

Colette Allen, director of Family Focus Evanston, told the RoundTable that she previously worked at the Museum of Science and Industry as a fundraiser. “I saw the impact of introducing STEM to children, how excited students were about STEM and how important it was to a lot of funders that I worked with that we prepare our future generation of scientists, technicians, engineers, and people interested in medicine and math,” Ms. Allen said. “When I started here [at Family Focus], I made it my mission to introduce the children here in this neighborhood who are so underrepresented in those fields to STEM as soon as possible and give them the opportunity in the EvanSTEM partnership.”

Three organizations comprised of African American men or women – the Chessmen Club of the Northshore; Links Incorporated, North Shore; and a Family Focus STEM Committee – were instrumental in planning the fest, and they volunteered at the fest, said Ms. Allen. When kids came to the fest, they could see them as role models and “could see there’s a future for them,” said Ms. Allen.

Hands-on Activities

At the fest, 13 STEM providers set up stations in Family Focus’s gym, which was transformed into the “Main STEM Hall.” Children in grades K through 8 and their parents could participate in hands-on interactive STEM activities at each station and could easily move from station to station. 

The STEM providers were She Is Code; Evanston Township High School Youth Technology Corps; TizMedia Foundation; ETHS Project Lead the Way; Evanston Public Library; Paige & Paxton; FIRST Robotics;  Museum of Science & Industry; Youth & Opportunities United (Y.O.U.); Family Focus; Office of STEM Partnerships at Northwestern University; MetaMedia-McGaw Y; and Radio Shack.

One activity for students was to build a tower as high as they could using paper cups. The tower would ultimately fall, but students were told to learn from their mistakes and to try again. “This was a real simple but an engaging and fun activity that Tiz Media Foundation had designed for young kids,” said Mr. Callam.

The Museum of Science and Industry provided a glider project. Kids built a glider and could adjust the wings and the pressure of a launch mechanism in an attempt to increase the distance their glider would fly.  Students could try it out, adjust, and retry.

In addition, there were eight 45- to 50-minute STEM programs for K-2 students and eight programs for third- through fifth-graders at Family Focus. Parents and their students sat at activity tables and were led through STEM activities by various providers and the Evanston Public Library.

One activity for K-2 students was “monster genetics” provided by NU’s Science in Society. Kids were asked to observe a mommy and daddy monster and then predict what a baby monster would look like. They then did an experiment by each making a baby monster. To do that they randomly selected nine slips of paper, each describing nine different traits representing skin color, number of eyes, etc. These slips of paper represented the parents’ genes and the kids would either get the mommy monster’s version of that gene or the daddy monster’s. The kids made a baby monster based on the traits described in the nine slips of paper.

At the end of the activity, the kids compared their baby monster to the parent monsters and to the other baby monsters at the table. “The kids were genuinely surprised to find out that the baby monsters were a blend of traits from both the mom and dad monster,” said Rebecca Daugherty, Assistant Director of NU’s Science in Society. “The kids and even some of the parents were surprised to see the degree of diversity in the other baby monsters at the table. They all looked different. Many of them had predicted a clear-cut outcome but they learned that inheritance can be full of surprises.”

At Fleetwood, middle-school students participated in STEM challenges as part of Northwestern’s McCormick School of Engineering Grand Prix event. Teams of three youth worked with a volunteer McCormick graduate student and competed in three separate challenges for points and prizes. The final event was a race between electric cars built by students.

“From the get-go, it just had a good feel about it, and kids were excited to be there and there was good energy,” said Mr. Callam. “All of the sessions were well attended throughout the day. Some families had to leave early for other obligations, but kids didn’t want to leave.”

 “Several parents came up to me and said they were so excited about having STEM activities in the neighborhood and thanked me for hosting it,” said Ms. Allen. “The kids that came to Family Focus on a regular basis came back on Monday afterschool and they were all abuzz about how fun it was and how exciting it was.

“My favorite story is we have a group of middle-school girls at Family Focus who really didn’t want to do it,” said Ms. Allen. “But we strongly encouraged them to come. They were at Fleetwood with Northwestern School of Engineering students. One mother told me, ‘I had to drag them to get them here. Now I can’t get them to go home because they were having such a good time.’”

“It was hands on learning at its best,” Paul Goren, District 65 Superintendent,  told the RoundTable. “There was enthusiasm across the board. The kids had an opportunity to think about science in a different and fun way. Parents were overjoyed to have interactive STEM activities available to their children.”

Dr. Goren added he was grateful for the generous grant from the Noyce Foundation that has made it possible for EvanSTEM to invest in creating STEM opportunities for children who normally lack access to them.

Summer/Fall Programs

Parents and children who attended the fest could sign up on a preliminary basis for STEM programs being offered this summer or in the fall.

EvanSTEM is providing a total of about $60,000 in funds to help pay the cost of seven STEM programs to be provided by seven different STEM providers – all of whom were at the STEM Fest registering students. Three of the programs will be offered in the summer serving 66 students and four in the fall serving 105 students.

EvanSTEM site-visit committees will follow up to see if the programs are meeting their goals and to offer advice, ideas, or encouragement, said Mr. Callam.

EvanSTEM has three main goals, Kirby Callam, director of EvanSTEM, told the RoundTable:

The first goal is to promote collaboration and coordination with existing STEM providers. “The STEM fest was an example of this, where Evanston’s STEM providers came together to interact with and engage the children and families of the Fifth Ward,” said Mr. Callam.

This goal continues for the long term. Mr. Callam said the STEM providers in Evanston get together every two weeks to talk about coordinating what they are doing along K-12 pathways toward STEM careers.

The second goal is to create accessible opportunities for underserved youth.  Supporting seven STEM programs at Family Focus and Fleetwood this summer and fall is one initiative to implement this goal. In the year ahead, Mr. Callam said the group also wants to make STEM activities accessible to kids in the south and west neighborhoods of Evanston.

A third goal is to impact the classroom experience with engaging STEM-based projects, said Mr. Callam. He said District 65 and 202 teachers have submitted 26 proposals for projects to transform STEM in their classrooms. EvanSTEM will select six or seven of these projects and provide a five-day workshop in July when 28 teachers will design a curriculum that they will pilot next year. The workshop is being coordinated with the Golden Apple STEM Institute.  


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...