STEAMbassadors: Mentors From the Community. For the Community.

STEAMbassadors: Mentors From the Community. For the Community.

Collage of STEAMBassadorsMalik Madkins cried a little bit on the day he heard a student say, “let’s listen to our teacher.” Madkins, who is studying film and photography at City Colleges of Chicago’s Truman College, was the teacher.

“I was like, I see you,” said Madkins.  “Then someone said they didn’t want to leave (when the program ended). That made me cry even more.”

Madkins, who served as a mentor for the FUSE program, was one of 55 college students who helped launch the STEAMbassadors program, which trains Black and Latino young adults from two-and and four-year colleges to work with middle schoolers in science, technology, engineering, arts, and math (STEAM)-related subjects.

An expansive partnership between Northwestern University’s School of Education and Social Policy, DePaul University, City Colleges of Chicago, the Chicago Park District, Project Exploration, and dozens of other community organizations, STEAMbassadors equips college students with the foundations of computer science, including coding, digital making, and computational thinking.

Mentorship, however, is the heart and soul of the program. Beyond the technical skills, STEAMbassadors provides young adults with the abilities, confidence, and drive to return to their own communities as role models.

“This is a movement,” said Truman College President Shawn Jackson. “It’s something that many of us have dreamed about but never seen actualized. Now we know the power of what we've created. And this gives us a great opportunity to build.”

The STEAMbassadors and program partners gathered virtually during The End of Summer Steambassdor Celebration 2020, which recognized the first cohort of students.

“They worked hard this summer, leading camps and helping to inform and shape the workforce mentorship program overall,” said Miranda Standberry-Wallace, STEAMbassador program director and community lead. “It was important to take time to cultivate a space for reflection and thanksgiving in celebration of their hard work, impact, and growth this summer.” 

The fact that the entire program took place virtually, during a worldwide pandemic, was a testament to the vision of SESP alumna Nichole Pinkard (PhD98), associate professor of learning sciences and faculty director of the Office of Community Education Partnerships at Northwestern’s School of Education and Social Policy.

Pinkard, an expert on building education ecosystems, has been laying the groundwork for more than a decade. When COVID-19 closed public spaces, key partnerships and infrastructure were already in place, allowing the teams to adapt the programs.  

“We’re creating the young STEAM artists and mentors who can power the programs that we need in our community,” Pinkard told the STEAMbassadors and program partners. “When we dreamed up this idea, we were thinking about face to face programming in the park. And y'all have just been miraculous in figuring out how to make this happen in virtual spaces.”

The STEAMbassador program is part of Chicago Youth Service Corps, a signature component of Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s My Chi. My Future. initiative, which connects young people to meaningful learning opportunities.

It operates on the platform, which Pinkard designed in the wake of COVID-19. STEAMville includes Northwestern-developed resources, such as TunePad, a tool for creating music using the Python programming language, developed by SESP’s Mike Horn, associate professor of learning sciences; and FUSE, a choice-based STEM lab, created by SESP’s Reed Stevens, professor of learning sciences.

STEAMville also supports content from partners like Project Exploration which featured live STEAMbassador-led broadcasts and interactive virtual sessions to youth registered through the Chicago Park District and their own program.

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

Campers chose from a wide variety of asynchronous and synchronous STEAM learning options, ranging from FUSE and Swift Coding Club to ReDesign Play, which began as a class at Evanston Township High School.  

Research suggests that young people working as mentors have a stronger STEM identity, which makes them more likely to persist in STEM pathways, said Kristen Perkins, partnership coordinator of the Northwestern University-Evanston Township High School partnership office.

“I know how valuable mentors in my life have been; I joined because if I could be that to anyone else, it would be awesome,” said DePaul University graduate student Marianella Osorio, who majored in user experience design.

Truman College’s 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.

“Our partners didn’t just come together to provide training; they came together to provide camps, Freedom Friday (a chance to showcase the work of the week), and feedback,” said Shai Moore, STEAMbassador program lead. “They helped us see how everyone fits into a larger puzzle.” 

As the mentors reflected on their experience, they talked about learning from the younger children they were teaching. Some felt like role models for the first time in their lives. Others said they were able to relax and be themselves.

“I felt very comfortable coming to you guys and just talking like I normally talk on a daily basis,” Shariff King, a social work major at Truman College told the group. “I didn’t have to be someone I’m not.”

That feeling of authenticity is extremely important, said Natasha Smith-Walker, executive director of Project Exploration. “When you allow it for yourself, you allow the children in your work and the individuals you are around to be themselves,” she said. “And we know children learn better from when it’s coming from a place of honesty.”

Several program participants said the experience helped clarify what they hope to do in the future. King called it his “training wheels.” I want to have my own agency where kids can get help from me and have someone to look up to,” he said.

Jazmine Walton, a sophomore at Alabama A&M University who is studying biology and psychology, said she benefited from the interaction with kids. I want to open my own practice for youth in underprivileged neighborhoods, so this was really like another stepping stone for me,” she said.

As the STEAMbassadors talked, Natasha Smith-Walker, director of Project Exploration, smiled and nodded her head in agreement. “Everything we have heard from you is exactly how we envisioned STEAMbassadors would operate,” she said.

“The fact that you learned from young people. The fact you taught young people. The fact that you are able to bring your authentic self. That's what this is all about. These youngsters are looking up at you and saying ‘we want to be who you are, we want to step in your shoes.’

In the same way you talked about your own role models, you have now become that in a young person’s life. You are pioneers. You are doing this work in a time we never would have anticipated in our history.”

Perhaps the clearest sign that the program made an impact came during Zoom calls. Nearly all the STEAMBassadors renamed themselves, adding the word “mentor” to their screen names. Soon, the middle schools were following suit. When Mentor Madkins saw a screen full of children who had added “mentor” to their own name, he grew emotional.

“I never knew I could do that much to inspire the kids to change who they are, to be a role model,” Madkins said. “I cried a little bit. But they didn’t see the tears.”

STEAMbassador Partners include

  •   Digital Youth Network
  •   Northwestern University’s School of Education and Social Policy’s Office of Community Education Partnerships
  •   Northwestern University
  •   City Colleges of Chicago
  •   University of Michigan
  •   Project Exploration
  •   Harry S Truman College
  •   Chicago Park District
  •   Digital Youth Divas
  •   Center for Excellence in Computer Science and Coding 



By Julie Deardorff
Last Modified: 9/27/22