More than 150 youth attended the EvanSTEM fest at Family Focus on April 22, 2017

On Feb. 5, Kirby Callam gave an update on EvanSTEM, a collaboration of 12 organizations in Evanston to engage underrepresented Evanston youth in STEM learning.  EvanSTEM was launched in 2015 with the help of a $625,000 grant from the Noyes Foundation, which School District 65 Superintendent Paul Goren was instrumental in securing. 

 “What we really want to do is create a network of all the STEM players in Evanston – that ecosystem of learning – and make sure we’re coordinating and collaborating to manage that synergistic effort among programs,” said Mr. Callam, Project Director of EvanSTEM.

“It’s about serving and reaching and accessing and engaging under-engaged youth in STEM,” he said.

“The key to that is building relationships with youth and their families and then holding on to them and moving them along STEM pathways towards high school and toward college readiness,” said Mr. Callam.

“We have had an amazing opportunity to be able to move forward and focus our work through EvanSTEM for children who live in the Fifth Ward and children who live in and around the Oakton School area,” Dr. Goren said.

The Structure of EvanSTEM

EvanSTEM is a collaboration, but it is structured like a non-profit organization, said Mr. Callam. A Directors Circle acts like a Board of Directors, and it provides oversight, guidance, support, and direction. The Directors Circle has representatives of participating organizations: School District 65, School District 202, Office of STEM Education Partnerships at Northwestern University (NU), Science in Society at NU, the City of Evanston, Evanston Public Library, Family Focus, McGaw YMCA MetaMedia, Youth and Opportunity United (Y.O.U.), Evanston WestEnd Business Association, and the Lewis-Sebring Family Foundation.

Evanston also has what is called a Coordination Circle, which has representatives of the participating organizations, and it meets once a month and “is really the staff of the project,” said Mr. Callam.  “This is where the work gets done. I call it the ‘party willing’ because everybody’s there because they really think this is important. They want to be there. And they see a lot of value in it. We get a lot done just by matching the capacities and capabilities of the organizations.”

Coordinated Partnerships

Mr. Callam said there are a number of “action circles” where the participating organizations are focusing on specific projects, including developing maker spaces, building out a City of Learning online platform, expanding a case management system, providing professional learning, and continuing STEM fests to engage youth in STEM learning. 

Maker Spaces. First, the organizations are planning to create or expand nine “maker spaces” by the end of next year, said Mr. Callam. Maker spaces, he said, are the modern day version of “your grandfather’s workshop in the back of his garage.”

In their simplest form, maker spaces are places where youth can come to make things. They may contain tools and resources around circuitry, electronics, robotics, coding, woodworking, art, photography, video, or fabric design, and digital fabrication tools, such as 3D printing and laser cutters.

 “We’re talking about kids solving problems, real-world problems, by going through a process of research and prototyping,” said Mr. Callam. “When you prototype, you have to create something, you have to test it, so you have to go through the scientific process. And then you have to rebuild, redesign, rebuild, and redesign it until it works.”

One maker space that is built out is MetaMedia at McGaw Y, said Mr. Callam. He said NU, King Arts and Chute schools, Family Focus, Fleetwood Jordain Center, Evanston Public Library, and Y.O.U. are developing maker labs as well.

By having all the organizations at the same table, they can coordinate their efforts, learn from each other, avoid duplicating programs, and develop a range of maker labs that meet the needs of underserved youth in the community.

The City of Learning. Another project that EvanSTEM is working on is called “The City of Learning Project.” EvanSTEM is partnering with Northwestern’s Digital Youth Network to develop this “online learning platform, where all kids in the City can track their progress and learning in STEM programs and out-of-school spaces,” said Mr. Callam.

In essence, the City of Learning is an online platform where students can build a portfolio that records the STEM activities they have participated in, the skills they have developed, and the awards, certifications, or badges they have earned.

The platform also contains many hour-long coding activities that students may engage in, such as animating their name, creating their own Google logo, designing a game, or programing a virtual robot.

The online platform was launched with Code 65 in December, and 4,600 third- through eighth-graders have registered.

Kids “already see it as kind of a cool space to go to and now we’re going to build it out,” said Mr. Callam.

District 65 Board member Candance Chow asked if the platform  could be used in other areas.

Mr. Callam said the platform will be “wide open,” and it may be used to track any kind of learning. As an example, he said the platform could be used to track a youth’s participation in art programs at the Evanston Art Center and to post his or her art work.

He said similar platforms have been developed and are in use in Chicago, Dallas, and Los Angeles. Boston, Mr. Callam said, incorporates students’ portfolios in a high school transcript that is available to colleges.

Case Management. Third, EvanSTEM is also developing a case management system, which is currently tracking 320 second- through ninth-graders. EvanSTEM provides counseling to all students in the system about available STEM pathways into high school.

As an example, Mr. Callam said, if a student is in an EvanSTEM program and is at a transition point – such as a fifth-grader moving to middle school – EvanSTEM will make sure the student is aware of what is available the next year that matches his or her interests, such as robotics. EvanSTEM will inform the student about “the next steps.”

“The goal is obviously to take them from step to step so that eventually they’ll be on track to take STEM courses at the high school,” said Mr. Callam. He said EvanSTEM will be successful if the composition of STEM courses at the high school change to include more women and more Black and Hispanic students.

As part of the case-management system, Mr. Callam said EvanSTEM plans to determine what STEM jobs are available in the community, such as a technician at one of the hospitals. EvanSTEM would then determine what skills are needed to get those jobs, and then help ensure that students are learning the needed skills. EvanSTEM plans to work with the Evanston Chamber of Commerce, the hospitals, and West End Business Association on this project.

 Professional Development. Fourth, Mr. Callam said a group of educators is interested in learning, “How can we change STEM within the classrooms and in the afterschool space and make sure that it is rigorous, timely, and appropriate.” In the last two years, EvanSTEM has sponsored three four-day workshops, attended by 72 educators. Working together, the educators have developed 38 STEM projects that can be used to engage youth.

STEM Fests. Fifth, Mr. Callam said EvanSTEM has sponsored a STEM fest for the last two years at Family Focus, and this year it plans to hold the fest at Chute. Last year, booths set up at the fest provided 14 different STEM activities for 150 K-5 youth who attended the fair.

Parents and children who are interested in a STEM activity can sign up at a booth, and STEM providers will contact them and tell them when programs are scheduled. 

“It’s been an opening point for families to engage in STEM programing, to find out more all at one location,” said Mr. Callam. He said the fests give kids a chance to see if they’re interested – “then let’s provide opportunities for them.”

STEM Learning Programs

In the last two years, EvanSTEM has coordinated many STEM programs for underserved youth, either after school or during the summer. Every program has more than one organization involved. Mr. Callam said some organizations have “capacity,” such as space and children, and some have “capability,” such as teachers, doctoral students, or other people who have STEM skills. The programs are:

• STEM Explorers, at Family Focus for kids pre-K to grade 2, in partnership with District 65;

• Jr. Science Club at Oakton, Dawes, Walker, and Washington Schools for grades 3-5, in partnership with NU Science in Society;

• First Robotics at Family Focus, Oakton, Dawes, Washington, and Walker schools for grades 3-5, with Y.O.U.;

• Jugando con las Ciencias at Washington and Oakton schools for grades 4-5, with NU;

• Quest4Earth at Y.O.U. for grade 5, with TisMedia;

• Code the Hood at Fleetwood-Jordain, for grades 5-8, with She is Code;

• Meta Makes at YMCA MetaMedia for grade 6;

• Science Club at YMCA MetaMedia and Family Focus for grades 6-8, with NU Science in Society;

• STEM Input-Output at Evanston Public Library for grades 6-8, with District 65;

• Engineering Saturdays at Family Focus for grades 6-8, with NU.

About 270 youth are served through these programs, all of which are free, said Mr. Callam.

District 65 Board member Rebeca Mendoza asked about the arts. “Are we missing out on kids who are artists?”

Mr. Callam said art is part of STEM. “When we talk about STEM, we are talking about engineering and design, and when we talk about design we’re talking about architecture and art.”

Going Forward

In the next three years, the plan is that District 65, ETHS, and NU will provide equal financial support for EvanSTEM, which will be housed, as now, at District 65. Its focus will be on providing accessible programming, student case management services, and pathways into local careers.

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...