Pinkard's New Grant Helps Create STEAMbassadors   

Pinkard's New Grant Helps Create STEAMbassadors   

Nichole with studentThe CME grant supports Pinkard's visionary work developing an education ecosystem for Chicago. Northwestern University professor Nichole Pinkard (PhD98) received a CME Group Foundation grant to launch an ambitious STEAM mentor training program for young adults from underrepresented communities.

The STEAMbassadors initiative lays the groundwork for careers in education or youth development by training two- and four-year college students to work with middle school-aged children in science, technology, engineering, arts and math (STEAM)-related subjects. 

The expansive partnership between Northwestern, DePaul University, City Colleges of Chicago, the Chicago Park District and dozens of other community organizations, equips community college students with critical STEAM skills, particularly in coding, digital making, and computational thinking – the foundations of computer science.  

Beyond the technical skills, the program provides young adults with the abilities, confidence, and drive to return to their own communities as role models.

“STEAMbassadors uses an empowerment model to re-imagine teaching and learning,” says Pinkard, faculty director of the School of Education and Social Policy’s Office of Community Education Partnerships. “It creates micro-learning ecosystems that are community-based but aligned to city-wide and school district goals and efforts that advance equity.” 

Pinkard’s grant bolsters her visionary work developing an education ecosystem for Chicago – one that connects formal and informal learning for young people. By bringing together researchers and practitioners from virtually every corner of the city, Pinkard helps underserved children find learning opportunities, whether they’re in school, out of school or on-line.  

It’s a model that can be scaled nationally. Already, STEAMbassadors has been implemented by the University of Michigan School of Education’s Wolverine Pathways college readiness program.

The STEAMbassadors program uses the STEAMville.org platform, which Pinkard designed in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. STEAMville leverages Northwestern-developed resources, including projects such as TunePad, developed by Mike Horn, associate professor of learning sciences, and FUSE, created by Reed Stevens, professor of learning sciences.

The STEAMville platform also supports content from partners like the Chicago Park District which featured live STEAMbassador-led broadcasts and interactive virtual sessions. Northwestern’s Center for Talent Development, meanwhile, provided STEAMassadors with computers, resolving a potential barrier of access.

The programs take place online and, when possible, Chicago Public Schools and City Colleges spaces, as well as libraries, Chicago Park District facilities and other public areas across Chicago.

“We started thinking of this as a village,” Pinkard said “We knew it couldn’t be done by one person or one institution.”

STEAMbassadors is part of Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s My Chi. My Future. initiative, which connects young people to meaningful learning opportunities.

The first cohort of 55, which primarily consisted of students from City Colleges of Chicago, Northwestern, and DePaul University, were trained to work with middle schoolers using an experiential learning theory called HoMaGo, which stands for “Hanging Out, Messing Around and Geeking Out.”

Truman College President Shawn Jackson and his team championed the partnership with the City Colleges of Chicago, making it possible for community college students to earn micro-credentials for their own learning and development.

“We want STEAMbassadors to see themselves as the educators they could become,” Jackson said.

A previous Northwestern University study conducted by the Office of Community Education Partnerships and funded by CME Group Foundation mapped and identified computer science deserts in Chicago. Of the neighborhoods that offered programming, most only provided introductory-level opportunities, according to the study.  

The research also suggested that the opportunity gap is exacerbated by a lack of trained STEAM teachers and mentors, particularly in the areas of coding, digital making, and computational thinking. “Middle school age children are old enough to move around a community but too young to travel across the city,” Pinkard says. “We want to fill those gaps.”  

The ongoing research arm of the project, which tracks student participation and outcomes, allows the program developers to deploy STEAMbassadors to the areas of the city that are in most need of STEAM mentors and programming.  

The CME Group Foundation, a vital partner in the project, expressed its appreciation for the tireless efforts over the last few months during an extremely challenging time due to health threats posed by the coronavirus COVID-19. 

Overall, the CME Group Foundation awarded more than $1 million in new funding to a wide variety of groups to support education initiatives like STEAMbassadors. The programs include computer science training, early childhood education, college and career preparation, and special COVID-19 response grants. (See a full list of grant recipients on the CME Group Foundation website.) 

“STEAM teachers and ambassadors who are trained to reach students specifically through online and informal learning environments is critically important, especially during these uncertain times where classroom access may be limited,” said Kassie Davis, executive director of the CME Group Foundation. “We are proud to support the STEAMbassadors program and its efforts to empower and equip students across Chicago for success.” 

By Julie Deardorff
Last Modified: 8/13/20