SESP in the Community

SESP in the Community

MetaMedia@Foster in Evanston's Fifth Ward: Where Middle Schoolers Learn Maker-Driven Experimentation with a STEAM Theme

By Julie Deardorff

Eleven-year-old Harmony Gray knows how to play a musical instrument but says she never really tried inventing her own.

That changed on a warm summer day at the new McGaw YMCA MetaMedia@Foster maker hub, the site of a School of Education and Social Policy partnership in Evanston, when she was invited to imagine and create something that doesn’t yet exist.

Over a two-hour span, Harmony and nine other middle schoolers made up melodies using both familiar and novel instruments, sketched out three concepts for their own musical inventions (the more fantastic the better), and practiced handling tools like saws and power drills, which they later used to make their ideas a reality.

The class, Explorations in Arts and Sciences, was part of a larger Northwest­ern University–powered initiative designed to broaden computer science education beyond coding and bring it to familiar out-of-school learning spaces.

Intentionally located in a former elementary school in Evanston’s most underserved neighborhood—the predominantly African American Fifth Ward—MetaMedia @Foster anchors an ambitious plan by SESP faculty and community partners to build a new type of learning ecosystem that particularly benefits young people who are underrepresented in science, technology, engineering, arts, and math (STEAM).

In addition to offering free computer-science-related classes for middle schoolers and training mentors and graduate students, MetaMedia@Foster is a hub for six SESP research projects—and more are on the way. It also plays a key role in the Northwestern Evanston Education Research Alliance (NEERA), a research-data partnership in which Northwestern collaborates closely with local school districts and the community on educational programs, rather than dictating the agenda.

Ultimately, the researchers hope a community-driven approach to out-of-school learning—one that’s designed to support young people, mentors, and other caring adults—can get more middle school students excited about computer science and its rich intersections with the arts, engineering, and design.

“Out-of-school learning is essential for ensuring equitable opportunities in STEAM,” says learning scientist Nichole Pinkard (PhD98), who designed EL3, a digital platform that serves as the portal for NEERA’s entire system (see sidebar on page 9). “We know that a single location can’t create enough experiences to make sure children are developing appropriately, so we’re helping them move fluidly between physical and digital learning environments.”

Explorations in Arts and Sciences, a MetaMedia@Foster pilot program, was codeveloped and led by Walter Kitundu, a community artist and MacArthur Fellow; assistant professor of learning sciences Shirin Vossoughi; Paula Hooper, assistant professor of instruction in learning sciences and education; and Arturo Muñoz, a PhD student in learning sciences. The team worked closely with MetaMedia mentor Dimress Dunnigan to implement the program.

Open to middle schoolers in several Evanston/Skokie School District 65 schools, the class looked at the role of computation in the making of artifacts—from drawing a design on paper and building a musical instrument by hand to producing digital beats. A previous class had been challenged to design and make unique eyewear sculptures using everyday materials.

“I’m most interested in developing creative confidence,” says Kitundu, a photographer, inventor, composer, and musician who teaches experimental instrument building at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. “When students go through the process of imagining something and making it real, the impact is bigger when their creations finally come together. In the beginning it feels like it’s never going to happen. But with their enthusiasm and our collaborative work, they end up with these precious objects.”

Computational making is an emerging field of research that uses both digital and physical materials to help students explore the processes and practices involved in making—whether the end results are tangible objects or spaces created through movement and perception. They get to try their hand at drafting, designing, and iterating—all key computer science tools.

In Explorations in Arts and Sciences, the middle schoolers learned about the cultural and historical context of sound before they tried making their own instruments. They learned about the work of DJ, beat maker, and sound collector Cesar Almeida (BS19) and then used an iPad and app to collect their own sounds to make beats themselves.

“A sound pulled into a beat-making app can become material that you can construct, manipulate, and use in many ways,” Hooper says. “The sound itself can be modified in frequency and timbre. It can be used to create beats that are formed as patterns of repetition.”

The notion that a pattern is an object that can be iterated is a fundamental computer science idea, Hooper says. “This work can support concepts like algorithmic thinking and iteration that are the building blocks of computer science.”

Throughout the class, the children explored how different materials form sounds. Why, for example, do musicians tighten strings? What creates the sound when you blow across an uncapped bottle? And why is steel the best material for tines on a thumb piano?

“Constructing instruments helps children appreciate how sound can be formed,” Hooper says. “Playing the instruments they’ve made allows them to explore sound in physical ways that can’t be easily done with an iPad or app.”

From a research standpoint, MetaMedia @Foster is a vibrant colearning space. Vossoughi worked closely with Muñoz to document the program, focusing on the pedagogical and social conditions that foster agency, self-determination, and free development. Researchers and educators met for daily debriefs that melded theory, design, and cultural insights, prompting reflection on the day and planning for the next in response to the children’s thinking and interests.

In the eighth and final class, held a few weeks after their introduction to instrument building, the students not only unveiled their newly created instruments but strummed, plucked, beat, blew into, and otherwise played them to the applause of family members who had come to listen.

The students performed using conduction, a style of improvisation modeled after the work of the late composer Lawrence D. “Butch” Morris, which Kitundu had demonstrated for the class using instruments of his own design.

Before long the families also joined in, picking up instruments and adding to the never-before-heard musical experience. For Harmony, a violin player, the class deeply enriched a subject she already loves: music. Her final project was a small piano crafted from wood, guitar strings, and metal.

“She was able to use her creativity along with her passion,” says her mom, Deanna Haynes, who tried playing the instrument. “It gave the class an extra oomph. And now she’s planning to start playing a real piano.”

Placing out-of-school learning within reach

The places where young people spend their after-school hours—such as libraries and other neighborhood spaces—can play a role in their learning and development.

But lower-income communities often lack the “connective tissue” that links formal and informal learning opportunities, says Nichole Pinkard (PhD98), associate professor of learning sciences and an expert on educational ecosystems.

Pinkard (pictured at left with a student) developed the EL3 platform to provide the digital infrastructure for integrating learning across home, school, and community spaces.

The system, used in Evanston public schools, helps children and families find STEAM opportunities, programs, and activities both online and across the city.

The network is directly integrated with schools, so teachers have access to individual and class participation and progress.

By removing boundaries and working collectively, says Pinkard, “the community becomes aware of and accountable for its young people’s learning and development both in and out of school.”