The geniuses behind the Summer Back lightweight bag, who took home the grand prize at the MSX "Shark Tank" exhibition.                                           Photo by Lisa Applegate

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The concept of the television show “Shark Tank” is rather simple: Find a common problem in society and provide an appropriate solution. The show’s contestants all demonstrate a quality – the hunger for innovation – that is remarkably universal.

More importantly, this quality does not discriminate amongst gender, race, and even age. McGaw Y’s Meta (Music, Engineering, Technology, & Arts) Media, a program dedicated to introducing youth to modern technology in a supportive environment and giving them a hangout/workspace in which to do it, proved this by organizing its own version of “Shark Tank” in the MetaMedia Summer Experience (MSX) program on July 21, creating the perfect opportunity for incoming sixth graders to expand upon their creative horizons within a safe space.

MetaMedia has been operating for a little over a year as part of a partnership between Northwestern University and Youth & Opportunity United (YOU). The MSX pilot program held this summer was at no cost to families thanks to a generous grant from Foundation 65 and supplemental funding from District 65. MSX was the first significant collaboration among  MetaMedia, District 65, and Foundation 65. 

The 21 students, all of whom will be attending Haven Middle School in the fall, spent six weeks exploring the new and advanced technology MetaMedia offers in its unique space at the McGaw YMCA, including a 3D printer and GoPro cameras. The students were then instructed to identify a problem in the Evanston community and create a product that would help to eliminate it.

“We are teaching kids [the process of] reading, research, failing, and doing more research,” said Lisa Applegate, Communications Specialist for the YMCA. 

MetaMedia has been operating for a little over a year as part of a partnership between Northwestern University and Youth & Opportunity United (YOU).

The MSX pilot program held this summer was at no cost to families thanks to a generous grant from Foundation 65 and supplemental funding from District 65. MSX was the first significant collaboration between MetaMedia, District 65, and Foundation 65.

“The goal [of MSX] was to help with the middle school transition, and also to reduce summer learning loss,” said Stacey Beardsley, Executive Director of Curriculum and Instruction for District 65. “We wanted to give kids an opportunity that was fun and exciting for the summer while still building their reading and writing. [Through MSX,] visual literacy has grown exponentially.”

The showcase of the students’ products resembled a sophisticated science fair– the six groups of students each displayed a poster board explaining their invention and its potential function in society, along with a laptop slideshow that demonstrated to the viewers the steps they took to put the invention together. For example, one group created a lightweight drawstring bag for the summer called the Summer Back. Their slideshow outlined the “milestones” of the Summer Back’s development: 1) cutting the fabric; 2) forming a budget; 3) adding a cupholder; 4) sewing the fabric; 5) picking out the fabric.

The other five groups did not disappoint, presenting equally detailed and thought-out products as the Summer Back. The “A.D.R.S. Girls” created a shopping cart for homeless people named The One and Only Helping Kart (T.O.A.O.H.K.) complete with toiletries, an umbrella, a cooler, and other such items; “Y&J Productions” created affordable, handmade phone cases crafted with beads; “Fusion” created the Bully Catcher – a pencil equipped with a hidden camera to catch bullies in the act; “CCCD Co.” created an ankle brace with an ice pack sewn into it; and the “Secret Pranksters” created the Pracket– a jacket with multiple pockets so pranksters can stealthily hide their “weapons” of choice without getting caught.

After the casual poster board displays, parents and staff members were encouraged to vote for their favorite invention and then to gather in a seated area for the real “Shark Tank” presentations. Each group spent five or so minutes informing the audience of its product, showing a short video about its creation and development, and answering questions from the panel of judges. The panel consisted of Ms. Beardsley; Penny Sebring, President of the Lewis-Sebring Family Foundation and researcher at The University of Chicago Consortium on School Research; Monique Brunson Jones, President and CEO of the Evanston Community Foundation; Julianne Hatfield, Ph.D. and doctoral fellow at Northwestern University; and Keith Robinson, Assistant Principal for Operations at Niles North High School.

After much deliberation, the judges gave out awards for “Dressed for Success,” “Most Positive,” “Teamwork Makes the Dream Work,” “Communication is Key,” and of course, the winning invention. The Summer Back was given top honors, as Ms. Jones described the product as “timely for summer” and having an “ease in functionality.” The three members behind its creation received gift cards.

“We’ve done showcases every trimester, but we don’t do them at quite this level of structure. We’re a drop-in program. We’re free for all middle schoolers, regardless of whether they’re from Evanston, regardless of whether they’re members of the Y… We just really want to create an equitable playing field for all kids to engage in art-making and finding their passion and digital media,” said Sam Phillips, the manager of MetaMedia.

The Sebring-Lewis Family Foundation funded the launch of the program last year with a grant of $1 million. Mr. Phillips said the concept of MetaMedia was based on YOUmedia, a digital technology center and youth hangout area in the Chicago Public Library. “The idea is that teens go, they hang out with each other, they mess around with the technology… then they start developing passions, geeking out, and doing projects – some of those people have become very successful,” he said. He gave the example of notorious Chicago hip-hop artist Chance The Rapper, who recorded his first mixtape at the YOUmedia studios.

When asked why middle schoolers in particular were the target demographic of MetaMedia, Mr. Phillips said that the District, Penny Sebring, and others examined “the landscape” in Evanston. “ETHS, one of the best [high schools] in the country, has incredible programs. At the elementary level, there are a bunch of opportunities like day camps. Middle school… not so much.”

“Middle school is also a time of incredible socio-emotional development and change internally, so you really need a safe space for those kids. They’re trying on all these different hats, they’re figuring out who they are, what they like, and you need a place like MetaMedia for that to be safe,” he said.

MetaMedia is free for all kids, regardless of McGaw YMCA membership, and offers after-school and summer workshops. Learn more at http://www.mcgawymca.org/metamedia/.