Madison Young presents solutions to Segal Institute Design interns, parents, and Northwestern faculty

Evanston Township High School students Fernando Licea and Abelardo Enriquez spent their summer striving to design an app to help people protect their privacy – ultimately experiencing both frustration and the thrill of success.

The two were among nine ETHS students enrolled in a two-and-a-half week course at Northwestern University that was part of an innovative pilot program using the STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Math) disciplines to tackle real-world problems.

Designed for the next generation of scientists and artists, Northwestern’s STEAM program is slated to debut at ETHS in the fall of 2017.

The course is designed to foster a “whole brain approach” to problem solving using the STEAM disciplines. Working in teams, the students picked problems without obvious answers and were tasked with ultimately designing and testing their own potential solutions.

“Too often, we focus on giving students problems with already-known solutions,” said Kristen Perkins, Northwestern/ETHS partnership coordinator. “I want students to wrestle with how to approach problems that don’t already have answers.”

Two days into the summer course, Ms. Perkins, part of the Office of STEM Education Partnerships (OSEP) at Northwestern’s School of Education and Social Policy, heard a comment that lifted her spirits.

“This is so much harder than school,” the budding high-school scientist told her. “But it’s so much better than school.”

The STEAM Research & Design Program included days of shadowing, a course in design thinking, visits to labs and art museums, data collection, interviews with experts, and a final research project and presentation. The students aimed high, trying to solve everything from college weight gain and time management issues to cyber security and pedestrian fatalities.

Like the summer pilot project, ETHS’s new STEAM course will build on successful Northwestern programs such as the course “Design Thinking and Doing” and “Big Data as Art,” a collaborative course between the McCormick School of Engineering and the Art Institute of Chicago. 

McCormick Dean Julio Ottino, who has long advocated blending the fields of art, design and STEM, will sit on the advisory board for the new ETHS course.

“We wanted to take things that are working at the University and bring them to the high school,” Ms. Perkins said.

The summer program attracted ETHS students with a wide variety of interests, from orchestra and theater to engineering, math, and computer science. In the first week, the students shadowed science, technology, and engineering students and professors and worked on a design project at Segal Design Institute. They met with Sara Grady, who coordinates the Scientific Images Art Exhibition for Northwestern’s Science in Society program, and visited the Block Museum and the Dittmar Gallery.

During the second week, they chose design challenges from the Illinois Research & Development STEM Learning Exchange, which were developed by corporate partners TGG, Microsoft, and Argonne National Labs.  Finally, the students formally presented their solutions to Segal Institute Design interns, parents, and Northwestern faculty.

“The focus was more about the process than the end product, Ms. Perkins said. “Normally in school, it feels like you have to be the expert in everything. But it’s OK not to have thought of everything.”

That certainly was the case for Fernando and Abelardo as they designed their app to help people protect their privacy. While researching security and permissions on mobile devices for Argonne’s cyber security team for their project, they learned how difficult it was to figure out where personal information is going once you have downloaded an app.

 “We learned pretty fast that we had to inform ourselves to teach others,” said Fernando, an ETHS senior who is interested in civil engineering, architecture, and design. “And we discovered that once you download an app, you really have no idea what info you are giving up.”