Programming robots, creating phone apps and designing fashion lines — the Fuse drop-in program draws young people into science, technology, engineering, arts and math (STEAM) with “cool” hands-on activities such as these. The Office of STEM Education Partnerships (OSEP) continues to expand Fuse and will soon offer the informal learning program at two Chicago Public Library sites.
Fuse meets at libraries, schools and youth centers, where students can drop by after school and on Saturdays for STEAM “challenges.” A $350,000 grant from the MacArthur Foundation will allow OSEP to develop brand-new challenges, including activities in fashion design, and to open studios at the Chicago Public Library main branch and at the Humboldt Park Library.
The Fuse program works to build students’ skills by combining highly motivating activities with the kind of leveling-up platform used in video games. “We’re looking at how to get kids hooked or engaged in STEAM,” especially if they haven’t shown interest in science before, says Amy Pratt, associate director of OSEP. Teens may choose activities that interest them and work in groups or at their own pace.
New challenges will supplement current activities in robotics, electronics, biomedical science, phone app development, sound mixing and architectural design. An online mentoring component is also planned to give students feedback from professionals.
The new fashion-themed challenges, which OSEP sees as a way to get more girls involved, will allow students to create designs with advanced software and to print those designs in 3D. Activities involve jewelry, fabric patterns, custom sneakers and e-textiles.
As part of the new initiative with MacArthur, OSEP is partnering with other members of the Hive Network, a group of organizations committed to youth-centered, collaborative, participatory learning. For example, OSEP will work with Adler Planetarium and Chicago Architecture Foundation on challenges related to their content. OSEP will also hold workshops with Hive organizations and other partners to educate them about the Fuse model.
A unique aspect of Fuse activities is the use of the leveling-up model from gaming. “There’s a low barrier, and there’s low risk. Students enter in at an easy level, have early success and see themselves leveling up. There’s no pressure — you do what interests you,” says Pratt. “Hopefully Fuse gets kids so interested in STEAM out of school that they will want to do more in school.”
Peer-to-peer learning is also key to Fuse. As students tackle the activities, a sophisticated web platform allows them to see what others are doing, give each other tips and even communicate across sites. As of February, students will be participating in Fuse at seven locations in the Chicago area.