Sheltering at home during a pandemic with a bunch of kids attending classes online could be a recipe for chaos and family therapy, but thanks to EvanSTEM’s community-wide creative programming, many families found it to be an evolving, productive and fun experience in learning.

Magic can occur when smart, talented adults who have a passion for teaching and helping students, together with subject-matter experts who like to share their knowledge intersect with and curious kids in grades 3-8 with a lot of time on their hands. 

STEM is an acronym for science, technology, engineering and math. EvanSTEM’s goals are to increase access and interest in science and math for students who traditionally underperform or are underrepresented in those fields, create opportunities for them to be successful, and continue that exposure in future courses, college, and ultimately a career.

EvanSTEM emphasizes professional development for teachers and expands collaborations between schools, teachers, STEM professionals and out-of-school educators.

Evanston District 65’s EvanSTEM program, led by Director Kirby Girolami Callam, works with community partners Evanston Public Library, MetaMedia at the McGaw YMCA, Youth & Opportunity United (Y.O.U.), and Family Focus. A recent sixth-grade project focused on climate action and out-of-school resources available to everyone.

This spring, EvanSTEM collaborated with all sixth-grade teachers to present a virtual version of the annual climate action project. There were 12 different social action categories (e.g., recycling plastic bags) with background information and links to get students thinking about how they wanted to approach the assignment. As students completed their work, their teachers and Mr. Callam posted the projects at https://sites.google.com/district65.net/2020-climate-action-project/home.

Last year, students were able to share their projects with the community at the ETHS Field House, which of course was out of the question this year.  This year, said Mr. Callam, they did it virtually. “With Ms. Carla Stone's leadership and vision, sixth grade students created a virtual project fair in Minecraft and then joined to share the experience with each other.” 

Ms. Stone, a sixth-grade science teacher at Nichols Middle School, said, “It’s so exciting. … We have had such a difficult time engaging students during the stay-at-home period due to the COVID-19 pandemic. So to tell students that they can showcase their Climate Action Project in a public Minecraft exhibit and walk around and explore with their peers is simply phenomenal.”

EvanSTEM also created out-of-school projects to keep students engaged and busy while they were sheltering at home. Housed on an online learning platform called EL3, it allows students to explore and try different activities based on their interests. The site was built by Northwestern through the Office of Community Education Partnerships (OCEP) in the School of Education and Social Policy. The faculty director of OCEP is associate professor Dr. Nichole Pinkard, founder of Digital Youth Network and L3, a learning platform that connects youths’ learning opportunities across school, home and community.

Modeled after Dr. Nichole Pinkard’s L3 program and developed with assistance from OCEP, EL3 is an acronym for Evanston Learns (1) in school, (2) out-of-school, and (3) online. EL3’s mission is to help Evanston youth “discover new paths and interests, explore Evanston’s rich resources, and find out what they can learn, make, do and, ultimately, become.”

The projects included in EL3 are designed to inspire curiosity and build skills and confidence. New EvanSTEM activities are posted and camps are taking place throughout the summer. All of the DIY projects and activities listed are free or affordable, and they build on a student’s existing skills, curiosity and interests. Completed projects are showcased in a section called The Depot.

Renee Neumeier, the Innovation and Digital Learning Manager at EPL, leads a team that has created most of the projects in the out-of-school section of EvanSTEM. Designing and creating behind the scenes, this team does not have the public presence of some other partners, but their contribution to EvanSTEM is tremendously important.

Ms. Neumeier is passionate about making digital learning available to every student, and she feels the EvanSTEM is “a unique opportunity to meet the needs of so many kids,” many of whom would have missed out otherwise she says.

Students each have a unique ‘digital backpack’ on EL3 that a parent or guardian must fill in and activate. Students’ explorations, lessons and projects form a learning history that is saved to the digital backpack. Badges for completing projects and eligibility for a raffle-prize drawing helps incentivize students.  As students continue to add to the digital backpack, their parents and teachers see the new skills and find ways to strengthen these. Older students might see recommendations of specific high school classes that will build upon what they have already learned.

EL3 sees Evanston as a Citywide campus, an essential tool in building lifelong learners who are curious and eager to succeed in college and a career. During this first immersion in learning from home, EvanSTEM created a series of bi-weekly challenges, Skill builder activities, and DIY projects around a specific theme. Sample themes included Science, Launch It, Get In Touch With Nature, Digital Storytelling, Coding, and Engineering. Students are encouraged to upload to EL3 whatever they complete, called a project artifact, in one of several formats, such as video, photo or audio file.

The RoundTable watched nearly all of the videos submitted for the Engineering theme offered at the start of the pandemic. Elementary-school students were tasked with designing a marble run of at least 30 seconds. Middle-school students were tasked with designing a Rube Goldberg machine. For both assignments, kids were encouraged to use normal, everyday things available to them around the house, such as empty cardboard boxes, tape, etc. They were also encouraged to be creative and to keep trying; first attempts rarely work. They needed to keep at it until they succeeded.

It seemed well worth it for the 20 students who completed the marble run and the 16 who completed the Rube Goldberg design. Each design was unique. They were complex feats of imagination come to life. In the background are seen family members who were enlisted to help hold items or be responsible for taping the video.

Living situations vary by location, family and formality, but share the clutter that seems to appear from humans being cooped up inside for too long. Some videos had music or special effects or cheering, but the sound wasn’t really necessary.

Many are funny and sparkle with the zest that comes from students’ trying to push their own boundaries about what is possible.

MetaMedia, one of EvanSTEM’s community partners, is open to all middle-schoolers. Located on the first floor of the McGaw YMCA, it took over the space of the afterschool hangout club and homework space for generations of Evanston kids.

The area has been converted to an afterschool “maker space.” Mr. Callam explains, “It’s a whole new space. It’s all about engaging kids where they’re at and then trying to push them along to higher skill levels based on their interests. It’s mostly along video production, audio production, performance production, sewing, and crafts. There is a kind of woodshop in there. Really, if you are interested doing, building, creating or designing something along a digital or 3D prototyping idea, they’re like, ‘We’re here to help. Let’s see what you’re interested in and let’s get you going.’”

MetaMedia is closed now, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but, when it reopens, the staff will be there to mentor and engage kids with activities that are fun and will interest them while they build skills.