After being canceled each of the past three years due to the pandemic, Evanston’s annual Fifth Ward Science, Technology, Engineering and Math STEM Fest is back from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday, April 29, at Family Focus, 2010 Dewey Ave.

The event will feature STEM-related activities for local elementary school pupils facilitated by more than a dozen local organizations, including Youth & Opportunity United (Y.O.U.), STEM School Evanston, Northwestern’s Baxter Center for Science Education, Evanston Grows.

Elementary schoolers participate in a workshop during STEM Fest 2019. Credit: Kirby Callam

Students and their families will have a chance to participate in hands-on demonstrations showing real-life applications of subjects like computer science, robotics, construction and multimedia, according to Kirby Callam, District 65 director of EvanSTEM.

More than a hundred to attend

Registration for the fest is closed, with more than 150 students already signed up and 120 ultimately expected to attend, STEM School Evanston’s Henry Wilkins said. Especially considering the space limitations of Family Focus, the event is “specifically created for and marketed to families with K-5 grade children of color who are underrepresented in the STEM fields,” according to a planning sheet that Callam put together ahead of the festival.

Women and people of color, particularly Black and Hispanic people, are historically underrepresented in the engineering and design industries, the Pew Research Center has found. But involvement in STEM tends to increase when students are able to see themselves represented in the field.

“We are very intentional about trying to market to marginalized Black and brown families,” Wilkins said, with Callam also noting the fest is largely composed of Black community organizations and volunteers to give underrepresented youth a sense of belonging in the space.

The ultimate mission of the gathering is to encourage long-term student engagement with STEM learning and STEM programs here in Evanston.

“It’s really a registration fair for the summer, so [saying] ‘Hey, come in and look at all these amazing places that are doing STEM, and then build relationships, or at least sign up for possible programs or events that they’ll be doing over the summer so that they can connect with you,'” Callam said. “Let’s start that and build on that so it’s not just a one-time event, but it’s the beginning of something that lasts.”

Callam and retired Family Focus Evanston Director Colette Allen presented the first STEM Fest in 2016, and Callam credited Allen with pushing for the event’s return this spring for the first time since the spring of 2019.

‘Exponential growth’

Before the pandemic, the event helped spur “exponential growth” in the involvement of underrepresented youth in STEM-focused programs through Northwestern, Evanston Township High School and community nonprofits, according to Callam. A big reason for that growth was getting dozens of people and social service groups on the same page, he said.

Representatives of STEM School Evanston answer questions about the nonprofit founded by Henry Wilkins (conversing behind table) in June 2021. Credit: Heidi Randhava

District 65 and ETHS have access to all the families and students in town, but a lot of what Callam does is try to bridge the gap between the school districts and other key partners like Family Focus, Fleetwood-Jourdain Community Center and Northwestern. By accomplishing sthat, students will hopefully have more access to the services and opportunities provided by those groups, Wilkins and Callam said.

As a concept and area of emphasis for local schools, STEM focuses on giving students the chance to think critically and problem solve in real-world, project-based situations. “There’s no recipe,” Callam said, which challenges students to come up with their own solutions to design, build and present their own creations of technology or engineering.

“It’s [about] changing their [the students’] STEM identity so that when they go to school, they’re like ‘You know what? I’ve done that before. I’m good at it, and I want to get better at it,'” Callam said. “And you do that by following up. We’ve got to have those programs in the summer, we’ve got to have those programs in the school and those opportunities, and they’ve got to be there every year.”

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Duncan Agnew

Duncan Agnew covers Evanston public schools, affordable housing, City Hall and more for the RoundTable. He also writes long-form investigations, features and the morning email newsletter three times a...

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