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Zhiyu Wang/MEDILL

Students' science and technology projects get showcased on a billboard at Michele Clark Academic Preparatory Magnet School, one of five new STEM schools in Chicago.

Pilot science and math initiative seems to connect with students, teachers say

by Zhiyu Wang
Apr 30, 2013

Getting kids interested in science and technology is a challenge in the U.S., but a new program at one Chicago school may be working.

“I want to work at Cisco myself. I want to be a system manager myself,” said Adrian Royster, a freshman at Michele Clark Academic Preparatory Magnet School who has Cisco Systems’ system manager Akari Muhisani as his mentor.

Michele Clark, located in the far West Side Austin neighborhood, is one of five Early College STEM schools launched last fall as part of an initiative by Mayor Rahm Emanuel aimed at meeting the demand in Illinois for skills in science, technology, engineering and mathematics – the so-called STEM specialities.

The school has approximately 600 students in grades 7-12.

The U.S. is falling behind in developing a STEM-skilled workforce compared with its international peers, according to a U.S. Congress Joint Economic Committee report in 2012. Canada, Mexico, Germany and many European nations graduate more STEM students as a share of all degrees than the United States does, the report said.

Each of the new Chicago Early College STEM schools is partnered with a corporate sponsor. California-based Cisco Systems Inc. is the Michele Clark sponsor. Sponsors at the other schools are Verizon Wireless, Motorola Solutions, Microsoft and IBM.

So far, 53 students have been paired up with a Cisco mentor. Mentors and students have met twice this school year, and the mentors maintain contact with students through a variety of other ways, including email and Skype, the school says.

Muhisani also took Royster on a tour of Cisco’s Rosemont facilities.
“We got to see the floor, we got to see the cloud system. But I want to see more,” said Royster.

Currently, Royster is discussing a plan for a school project with Muhisani.
“I guess there will be a team. We are trying to decide how we are going to do this,” said Royster.

The five Chicago STEM high schools have a complete high school curriculum, including English, history and other typical classes, but try to encourage student interest in science, technology, engineering and math in a variety of ways. One way teachers do this is to draw connections between STEM ideas and kids’ normal interests.

On Thursday, some Michele Clark 9th graders are going to experience Cisco’s TelePresence conference room, an environment that enables people in two different locations to see and talk to each other in what appears to be a single conference room. Students will use the room to have a conference with a school in DeQuincy, La., to talk about zydeco music, Chicago blues and the mutual influence of the two.

“Kids like to do mix music and stuff,” said math teacher Patricia E. Dean. “Those are the things you can really get the kids interested in so that they learn.”

Dean said she has seen in the last three or four months a change in the students’ mindset. As teachers encouraged the students to get involved in STEM-related programs, students who lacked confidence before are now excited about these programs.

“I see the switch. Kids are now stepping out and saying ‘I want to try this,’” Dean said.

A STEM school that knows how different subjects are related can really help the kids see that nothing is isolated, Dean said. Through various interdisciplinary programs and hands-on after-school activities, students can see why learning technology is relevant to their lives.

“These kids are in a technological world, and unless you prepare them, they are going to be lost.” Dean said. “I don’t care what you choose as a profession, technology is going to be part of it.”

Reed Stevens, an education expert, also said an interdisciplinary approach is necessary.

“I certainly don't think that the traditional ways of teaching science or math in schools are very productive or engaging for any kids, including the high achieving kids,” said Stevens, who is a professor of education and social policy at Northwestern University. “People don’t discover or create that way.”

Stevens has co-developed FUSE, an after-school program that aims to engage students in science and technology.

Students in Michele Clark have already been recognized for their achievement in various after-school programs in the last few months. The school’s robotic team was sent to compete with other schools for the first time this year and came in third place in a local competition called VEX Scrimmage Competition. They also participated in an interstate competition that included more than 70 high schools from the Midwest area.

Michele Clark has also cosponsored with Cisco the “Beyond the bell” program to instruct students designing radio-controlled sailboats from blue prints to actual models. And students in Girls Empowered by Math and Science had the chance to do food labs, field trips and scientific experiments including dissecting a sheep’s heart, said Gladys Rodriguez, STEM project manager at Michele Clark.

Each of Chicago’s five STEM schools is doing a different program, but they will hold a STEM symposium at the end of the year to share experiences, Rodriguez said.

“Not everybody is doing the same thing, but we are all working towards defining what STEM is going to look like within our existing structures,” Rodriguez said.

At least one science teacher is hoping Chicago Public Schools will develop a uniform standard for STEM education and would also like to see a national curriculum in the future. It could help students who transition from one STEM school to another, which is especially important in Chicago where “we’ve got schools opening and closing every day,” said Steven Woods, science teacher and After School Matters program coordinator at Michele Clark High School.