Kids learned about rocket propulsion and safety at School District 65 Science Department’s “Blast Off” booth.

On Saturday, April 22, while thousands of scientists, educators, researchers, and science-lovers gathered on the National Mall and in many cities throughout the nation to bring attention to the importance of STEM education, 121 K-5 students attended a four-hour Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) fest sponsored by School District 65 (through EvanSTEM) and Family Focus at Family Focus in the City’s Fifth Ward.

Sixty percent of the students who attended were residents of the Fifth Ward, 76% were African American, 22% were Latino, and 53% were girls. By all accounts the STEM fest was a resounding success.

The Fifth Ward STEM fest is one of EvanSTEM’s initiatives designed to spark interest and learning in STEM, especially for African American and Latino youth in an accessible and aligned way. The fest was planned by representatives of EvanSTEM, Family Focus, a Fifth Ward STEM Committee, the Chessmen Club, Youth Opportunity United (Y.O.U.), and the Evanston Public Library.

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.

Generating Interest
The STEM Fest “is really about creating an accessible event that’s exciting and fun for Evanston kids who come from families who don’t typically pursue STEM careers,” Kirby Callam, director of EvanSTEM, told the RoundTable. “So young kids – with their parents in tow – get to design things, experiment, and explore science and engineering in a way that is in contrast to their classroom experiences.

“We are trying to change the equation that has resulted in the higher-level STEM courses at ETHS being dominated by white males,” Mr. Callam continued. “To do that, we have to start early and provide our interested and underrepresented youth with avenues to continue to design, experiment and build all the way to high school. Come freshman year registration time, we want these children to consider Introduction to Engineering Design as a desired course to take because a) they know what the course title means, b) they are comfortable with the course goals as they have already done some related work before, and c) they feel confident that they can do well in the course.

“So, STEM Fest is a starting point and then becomes an annual check-in. We have all of the community’s STEM program providers in attendance, and they seek to develop a relationship with the youth and parents and get them signed up for future after-school and summer programs.

“The STEM Fest also puts these children in our EvanSTEM case management ecosystem, where we, as providers, can encourage interested youth to participate in available programs as they are available all the way up to high school.”

Colette Allen, director of Family Focus Evanston, told the RoundTable, “I was really pleased to see an increase in the number of children attending this year. The response was phenomenal. We saw repeat families and new ones and all had a wonderful time. Family Focus is honored to host an event that gives students, typically underrepresented in the STEM fields, the opportunity to experience fun, engaging activities that just might spark an interest in a career in science or technology.

“I was particularly pleased to include new providers this year. The Evanston Police Department conducted a CSI lab which the kids loved. It reinforced that STEM is everywhere.

“A big thank you to the sponsors, Wintrust Bank and the Northshore Links. And a special thank to EvanSTEM and Kirby Callam who organized the event.”

The Hands-on Activities
At the Fest, 14 STEM providers set up stations in Family Focus’s gym, which was transformed into the “Main STEM Hall.” Children in grades K through 5 and their parents could participate in hands-on interactive STEM activities at each station and could easily move from station to station. 

In addition, there were 50-minute STEM activity sessions in classrooms on the second floor at Family Focus. Students, with their parents, were able to spend time
working on a single project.

One activity was a wind tunnel, created by placing a four foot tube on top of a window fan. Sam Phillips, Manager of MetaMedia at McGaw Y, told the RoundTable, “We created a prototype of the wind tunnel, and we’ve been figuring out ways to get kids to engage in the wind tunnel; this is a good way to tinker around in aerodynamics and engine design.”

“One thing we found is successful is a game we invented called ‘battle cups.’” Mr. Phillips continued. Kids start with a paper cup and adjust its shape so the cup will lift off the fan, but not fly out of the wind tunnel. They then put their cups into the wind tunnel “which is like an arena and all the cups swarm around and fight each other and the one that flies out loses, and the ones that stay in win. That’s been very fun and engaging for our middle school students, and we adapted it to younger grade levels for the fest.”

District 65’s STEM Department operated a “Blast Off” booth. Carla Stone, a sixth grade teacher at King Arts and a Golden Apple winner, said she was teaching the principles of basic rocketry – the kids mixed alka-selzer and vinegar, which has a quick chemical reaction, similar to what happens inside a rocket engine. They placed a cap on top of the mixture, and sometimes there was an explosion and the cap shot up about six feet into the air, and at times there was a fizzle.

Ms. Stone said, as part of the process, she taught students the importance of science tools, such as wearing safety goggles. “I want them to walk away with a good happy connection, with them identifying as a scientist, even if it’s just for a moment, so they feel good about science and they feel good about exploring.”

Andrea Daquino, a third-year Ph.D. student in chemistry at Northwestern University, together with other Ph.D. students in biology, said they wanted to teach kids about cells in a fun way, so they taught kids about different parts of a cell by making a “cell cookie.” “We teach the kids each of the different parts of a cell, such as the membrane, the nucleus, the endoplasmic reticulum, the lysosomes, and tell them about all of these different parts and then add each of these different parts to a cookie as they learn about it.

“If at the end of it they can tell me about the different parts, it helps me know they learned something about it and they know that their bodies are made up of millions of cells. This is a fun way to get them excited about the DNA in those cells and the DNA in your body. How it makes
you unique.”

Rebecca Daugherty, Assistant Director of Northwestern University’s Science in Society, said Kevin Nyberg and other biology students at NU put together a demonstration on fruit flies for one of the 50 minute learning sessions. In the session, the elementary students looked at a normal fruit flies through microscopes set up in a classroom, and then looked at mutant fruit flies that the NU biology students brought with them from their lab, examining how the mutations affected the fruit flies. “The volunteers shared why it’s important for scientists to study fruit flies,” said Ms. Daugherty.

Riley Lubic was one of several people managing an activity in which six to ten kids could build a lego robot and program it with block-building software to move around a table about six feet wide and 10 feet long. Each block in the block-building software instructs the robot to move in a certain way, such as to move forward a certain distance, turn in a certain direction, etc. Riley said the activity was designed to get young people interested in STEM.

Riley added that one thing they are trying to teach young students is “core values,” or “to understand scientific professionalism, which is understanding that no matter how much work you put in, even if it fails, you just have to know what you learn is more important than what you earn out of it.”

Riley is an eighth-grader at Haven Middle School.

The STEM providers at the Fest included She Is Code; School District 65 STEM Department; Evanston Township High School’s Project Lead the Way; Evanston Public Library; Paige & Paxton; Northwestern University’s Science in Society; Inspire First Robotics; Youth & Opportunity United (Y.O.U.); Family Focus; Office of STEM Partnerships at Northwestern University; MetaMedia-McGaw Y; Northwestern’s 3D4E Club; Northwestern’s Jugando con las Ciencias; and the National Association of Black Engineers.

Parents Very Positive
Parents were very positive about the STEM fest. Len Copeland, a Kingsley parent, told the RoundTable, “Being a father of young girls, I want to ensure they get exposure to STEM, so that’s why we came today. We know there’s a shortage of women in the STEM fields and young girls aren’t encouraged, especially African American young girls are not encouraged to go in the direction of STEM careers. We want to encourage our girls so they can do anything, especially STEM.

Nicola Carr said, “We’re actually going in the direction of STEM, so it’s important for us to start children at a young age.” She said her daughter wanted to sign up, and “I said, ‘why not, check it out and see if it’s something that you like, we can add it to your after-school activities.’ I like what I see today. She’s definitely interested. So yes, this is something she will be doing.”

Kerri Daniels, a Dawes parent, said the reason they came “is my son is interested in electronics and science. He’s really into gaming. He’s having a wonderful time. I think it’s very important to get kids involved now.”

Kiara Allen, a Kingsley parent, said, “I feel it’s very educational. It’s teaching them to build things, and that you can have fun with it too. It’s not just boring. It can be fun.”

“I think there was much fun had by all and kids expressed a ton of interest,” said Mr. Callam. “Of the 68 surveys returned by the youth, 100% responded with a “very likely” (the most positive response) to the question: How likely are you to return to the STEM Fest again?

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...