If you have a teenager who you think spends an inordinate amount of time staring at his cell phone and playing computer games, a new Evanston educational initiative offers hope.

It’s called EvanSTEM, a collaborative involving the two public school districts, Northwestern University, the City of Evanston, the Evanston Public Library, McGaw YMCA, Family Focus, Youth & Opportunity United (YOU), in cooperation  with Cradle to Career, and funded for three years by a Palo Alto, Calif.,-based non-profit.

The program was explained to the Evanston/Skokie District 65 School Board Monday night by its executive director, Kirby Callam, to rave reviews.

EvanSTEM hopes to unite educators and community partners in a project that will direct some of that game-playing energy into positive directions that could result in lucrative careers in the STEM field.

STEM is shorthand for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Workers in these fields typically earn 26 percent more than non-STEM workers, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce, and activities ranging from robots to drones are fun for most youngsters to get involved in.

And it’s not just for the iPad-obsessed nerds and geeks. The program also hopes to improve access and engagement for students who have traditionally underperformed or have been underrepresented in Evanston STEM programs.

It is also designed to grab the attention of female students, who typically have not been well-represented in scientific and engineering careers.

Not to take the fun out of it, but Dr. Michael Kennedy, director of Science in Society at Northwestern, contends that “STEM programming expands children’s capabilities to create, analyze, and problem-solve.”

In the process, he adds, “they are learning a variety of design, technical, and critical thinking skills important for all careers, from scientist to artist.”

The $640,000 three-year grant that is fueling the effort is coming from the Noyce Foundation, the California-based group that became interested in an Evanston project due largely to the efforts of a member of its Board of Trustees, Paul Goren, who also happens to be the superintendent of District 65 schools.

Says Goren: “If we can engage students who have not traditionally pursued STEM-based careers early in their academic development with new and inspiring experiences, we have the potential to alter life trajectories.”

That’s the beauty of the collaborative approach. While much of STEM learning takes place in non-credit game-like activities, underlying it all are the math and science principles taught in school.

And the intermediate goal of the program is to encourage more young people to pursue their STEM passions in college.

The Commerce Department points out that more than two-thirds of the nation’s STEM workers have at least a four-year college degree, while less than one-third of non-STEM workers have a college sheepskin hanging on the wall.

So part of the project involves analyzing a STEM career choice and working it backwards to determine what lessons need to be taught as early as the third grade in order to make such a career happen.

At the same time, there’s a certain pleasure involved in observing the planets through a telescope or looking at amoebas under a microscope.

Success, therefore, involves formal school training that only certified educators can offer, supplemented by fun activities that volunteer youth-oriented agencies can provide, such as earning a radio merit badge in the Boy Scouts.

At Evanston Township High School, there’s a course called Geometry in Construction that each year builds a house that is transported to a vacant lot in Evanston, adding to the affordable housing stock in the community.

“At ETHS we have made tremendous strides to provide state-of-the-art STEM classrooms and programs in recent years,” said Superintendent Eric Witherspoon. “We look forward to complementing this work by aligning our STEM career pathways with District 65 and Evanston’s out-of-school program community,” he added.

Board members Monday reacted unanimously favorably to Callam’s remarks. Typical was Candance Chow’s statement that “it gets me extremely excited about what can happen over the next three years.”

Goren predicts that a successful three-year startup could very well lead to future grants from government and industry that can add fuel to the program.

Who knows, but a future Microsoft or Facebook could very well be the product of a youngster just entering the third grade this year at Oakton Elementary.

Charles Bartling

A resident of Evanston since 1975, Chuck Bartling holds a master’s degree in journalism from Northwestern University and has extensive experience as a reporter and editor for daily newspapers, radio...

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  1. There are many more who could provide the training

    The article says "Success, therefore, involves formal school training that ONLY CERTIFIED educators can offer, supplemented by fun activities that volunteer you…" ============ I take issue with the statement "only certified…" Many people in industry and retired people from STEM fields can provide equal or superior training and probably inject even more enthusiasm into students. Certainly someone from Google or like companies, Fermi lab, Motorola, or even a "quant" from Citadel could provide superior knowledge and generate excitement in students. As it is, the schools have tried to keep very highly trained and exciting professional out of the schools and education/training.

    1. Knowledge alone does not make a teacher

      Someone may be an expert on a subject but that does not mean they are able to teach it to someone. You must learn how to teach after you learn the material to be taught.

      You also make the statement:  "schools have tried to keep very highly trained and exciting professional out of the schools and education/training." I have no idea where you got this idea but my past experience has been that schools actively seek experts in STEM areas to become teachers and have employed them. 


      1. But there is a big “IF”

        They may "seek" them but let them teach only if they go through teacher training courses–mostly in inferior "colleges of education"–go through  evaluation by teacher appointed teachers, join the union and such—which will cut out 90% of those who would otherwise be excellent teachers.

        Yes knowledge alone does not make a good teacher [which can be judged pretty quickly] but teacher courses/programs without knowledge assures theywill not be good.

        How many PhDs or even M.S. in a STEM subject—not STEM for teachers—does ETHS have as fulll-time teachers or even allow to teach part-time or select courses ?  The only ones I've heard of are a couple of NU Math profs.—I don't recall if they teach within the ETHS building or at NU.

    1. A Northwestern program

      Project Excite is a program of the Center for Talent Development at Northwestern University, which is one of the partners in EvanSTEM.


  2. Contact Info
    It would be nice if someone were to post some information about how to get more info about the program. How about a website or a person to contact at the school districts?

    1. The EvanSTEM office

      Kirby Callam, executive director of EvanSTEM, is operating out of the District 65 headquarters at 1500 McDaniel Ave. He can be reached by email at CallamK@district65.net.


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