NU gets $6M to boost Evanston students' success

Northwestern University’s School of Education and Social Policy has secured more than $6 million in funding for the Northwestern Evanston Education Research Alliance with Evanston's two school districts.

NEERA is a research-practice partnership that brings together Evanston schools, their administrators, and Northwestern researchers from SESP and the Institute for Policy Research to improve the lives of Evanston students by implementing practical research findings.

The alliance was established to collect data about a student’s experience, from grades and attendance to after-school activities, and analyze which activities are predictive of post-secondary persistence, defined as the completion of five consecutive semesters of college or similar training.

As reported to the District 65 and 202 school boards in May and again in October, much of the initial work was devoted to figuring out what could be measured, transferring and aligning data and starting analysis.

In the past few months, SESP faculty members have received National Science Foundation Grants totaling $3.8 million and $2.3 million from private foundations, including the William T. Grant Foundation and the Spencer Foundation. Additionally a faculty member from the McCormick School of Engineering has received a $550,882 National Science Foundation grant.

Those grants will be used to build a STEAM learning hub in the 5th Ward, in collaboration with the McGaw YMCA and Family Focus, and to create an online infrastructure to support, connect and document in-school, out-of-school and online learning.

The community-based learning hub, will also provide adults in the community with training and support. Ultimately, the researchers hope a community-driven approach to out-of-school learning – one that’s designed to support youth and caring adults -- can get more young people excited about careers in computer science.

Another grant supports “Interests for All,” a project designed to broaden participation in science, technology, engineering, arts and math by integrating two successful learning approaches, City of Learning and FUSE.

By blending and building upon these two novel approaches, the researchers will create the “I4all” infrastructure and study how it is used over time to support out-of-school learning opportunities for Evanston children.

“A key goal for the I4all infrastructure is to increase access to STEAM pursuits, especially for underrepresented youth, and help to coordinate and build capacity for STEAM learning across in-school and out-of-school with District 65 and community partners” said Nichole Pinkard, SESP associate professor.

So far, little is known about whether out-of-school learning can help close the achievement gap, because it isn’t systematically documented or tracked.

“Our project will provide new data and help shed light on what happens if all middle school children are given the chance to participate in STEAM activities in both formal and informal learning spaces,” said Reed Stevens, SESP professor.

A third project uses two new platforms that combine music and coding in a partnership between Northwestern, Georgia Institute of Technology, the District 65 and the Evanston Public Library.

TuneTable and EarSketch, two platforms that teach coding through music, will be integrated with a third, more expansive platform, called “Evanston Learns in-school, out-of-school and online” or EL3 to reach more students and track their engagement.

When EL3 was piloted during a month-long coding campaign in District 65 elementary and middle schools, 79 percent of third through eighth grade students participated.

“But while we have the technology and community infrastructures in place, we still need to figure out how to keep youth engaged in longer-term projects that illustrate the value of coding and using computers to solve computational problems,” Pinkard said.

By 2030, one of every two STEM jobs in the United States will be in computing. But the number of women and minorities in post-secondary computer science programs remains discouragingly and persistently low.

Reaching children early, by offering a wide variety of computational experiences, at many ages and settings, can help shape their path through high school and college, said Mike Horn, associate professor of learning sciences and computer science.

“We can’t rely on formal experiences with computational literacy alone to develop the next generation of scientists, engineers, and citizens.”

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