YouSTEM Project Seeks to Create Spaces for Engaging Teens in Science

Robots, websites and balloon-powered airplanes were key ingredients of a pilot effort this summer to connect young people to the excitement of cutting-edge science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). To address the challenge of engaging young people starting to explore STEM, three School of Education and Social Policy professors are launching a project called “YouSTEM.”

This summer, faculty members Kemi Jona, Reed Stevens and Mike Horn completed pilot testing of several science “challenges” designed to excite young people. They worked with a group of local teenagers in Annenberg Hall on Northwestern’s Evanston campus.

In one activity, teenagers used laptops to program toy robots to move along an obstacle course. The teens earned points by keeping the robots on track as the machines moved from destination to destination. Once comfortable with the programming, the teens then developed their own obstacles to challenge each other.



Many universities, museums and research centers have been working to connect youth with today’s STEM resources, but they often fall short in being able to serve large numbers of young people on a regular basis. “We need a solution that allows us to better engage youth in STEM fields at earlier stages of engagement, does so in more youth-accessible locations, and has the capacity to be scaled up to impact a significant number of youth,” says Jona.

YouSTEM seeks to adapt the successful “YOUmedia” model, which engages teens with digital media in an innovative, 21st-century teen learning space. YOUmedia is housed at the Chicago Public Library's downtown Harold Washington Library Center.

Initially, the YouSTEM project will plan, prototype and launch after-school spaces at Evanston Township High School, Glenbrook South High School, Wheeling High School and a Chicago Public Library site. Eventually, a large STEM space within the Chicago Public Library will grow out of the YouSTEM project, informed by the SESP research.

“We view the variety of initial spaces as providing us with an opportunity to compare youth access patterns and preferences to inform the design of the materials so they can be readily deployed to future replication sites,” says Jona. Northwestern, Adler Planetarium, the Chicago Architecture Foundation and other regional partners will create or adapt their content and programming for the YouSTEM spaces.

Based on this summer’s pilot program, which draws on input from teachers and teenagers, STEM challenges for the sites will be refined. The researchers will also develop a system for linking the challenges together into a game-like progression.

The researchers have begun conducting focus groups and surveys with area high school teens to identify their patterns of "hanging out" and the realities of accessing a site. “We are also asking them about what types of ‘hook’ and ‘trigger’ activities would attract them to come and/or stay in such a space,” says Jona. “These focus groups are integral to the real success of the space and will be integrated into the planning discussions.”

The YouSTEM project is funded by Hive Chicago through the Chicago Community Trust; Hive is a learning network supported by the MacArthur Foundation. Northwestern’s partners include the YMCA of Metropolitan Chicago, whose Teen Leadership Institute is participating in project focus groups.

A major goal of the You STEM project is “to ignite and nurture STEM-focused interests in youth,” says Jona. In addition, the project is identifying programming, staffing models and equipment needed to support youth interests.

By Marilyn Sherman
Last Modified: 8/25/11