District 89, a school district on the western edge of Chicago, Illinois, is home to nine schools ranging from kindergarten to eighth grade. It encompasses three separate counties in Illinois; Maywood, Melrose, and Broadview. When I spoke to Tracy Sykes, the Math and Science Coordinator for the district, she talked me through District 89’s journey with STEM education and their goals for the future.
District 89’s relationship with Woz ED had a special beginning. Steven Hunter, former NBA player and life-long promoter of equitable education, spent his K-12 years in District 89 and has always given back to the community that raised him. After retiring from basketball in Phoenix, Arizona, he stumbled across the STEM and Science Education company, Woz ED, and saw a way to bring technological resources to his beloved home district and give students in his hometown access to educational opportunities that would help them become successful post-schooling.
That was six years ago. Fast forward to today and District 89 is offering an impressive after-school STEM program at every school. Each of the district’s six elementary schools, along with their K-8 school, and K-8 dual enrollment academy have multiple levels of Woz ED pathways included in their after-school program.
What’s in The Works?
The District is highly focussed on bringing Woz ED STEM Kits and curriculum into the school day for their students. This way, all of District 89’s student body can have access to these resources. Their plan is to start implementing a “S.T.E.A.M” program where art teachers begin incorporating Woz ED’s Digital Animation pathway into their lesson plans. From there, as Tracy Sykes tells me, they hope to build up the opportunities to bring other pathways into the mix and combine them with other subject material.
One of District 89’s schools, Stevenson Middle School, has a designated sixth-grade STEM teacher that gives STEM lessons daily and has found a new level of excitement and engagement from her students. This year, she created a survey that asked the students directly how they felt about STEM. What was found was a resounding love of STEM and a desire to keep it around in the coming years.
I asked Ms.Tracy Sykes about how she has seen change happen for the better during her last 26 years within District 89. She told me,
“When I started out, science was mainly just reading your book and answering some questions. You may have a lab here and there or an experiment here and there, but not a whole lot of hands-on…Now it’s done a 360 turn around, where teachers are more like facilitators, students are doing a lot of inquiry-based learning, students are doing a lot of lab work, and collaborating with each other and creating.”
This new style of teaching and learning has allowed for more collaboration, creativity, and determination among teachers and students alike. One of Ms. Sykes’ responsibilities is to observe and monitor classrooms in order to gauge how teachers and students are doing with new material. She has noticed a general shift in engagement and participation among students and teachers involved in STEM education.
For those lucky sixth graders at Stevenson, she has seen them show up to their STEM class buzzing with excitement day after day. For those students attending District 89’s after-school STEM and Science programs each day, she has found a willingness to take risks and explore without fear of failure. This is only the beginning of the district’s journey into STEM.
Coming Up Next
District 89 has big dreams for the future of its STEM and Science Programs, some of which have already begun materializing. This summer, the district hosted its first STEM and Science summer camp. Here, students were given instruction on Woz ED pathways such as Animation, Robotics, and Artificial Intelligence. This summer program had been a goal for the district for many years now. With patience, diligence, and commitment, educators in the district made it happen.
There is another program in the works starting with students entering 2nd and 3rd grade. This is an all-day program where STEM concepts are introduced to students and they are given the opportunity to tinker with broader tech pathways like Artificial Intelligence.
With these programs making major headway, District 89 has set its sights on getting Woz ED kits and curriculum into their daily elementary and intermediate classroom schedules via the art route. Their goal is to begin introducing concepts from Woz ED’s Digital Animation Pathway into their yearly art lesson plans to spark more interest, see how it plays out, and decide, from there, which direction they want to go.
Tracy got me thinking about just how many opportunities students are exposed to within STEM education. When you think about a stereotypical engineer, you may think about operating heavy machinery and detangling wires, but what about gaming engineers writing code to create a video game or bio-engineers coming up with new ways to grow more sustainable food? Underneath this one professional umbrella of “engineer,” there are countless directions to consider.
Often, kids aren’t aware of just how many professions and paths exist within a given educational sector. In the traditional classroom, kids often see their futures splayed out for them in narrow strokes. They think of themselves as artists or doctors or businessmen or mathematicians or actors or musicians. STEM allows a more specific exploration of the types of roles that will exist when current K-12-aged students enter the workforce. As Tracy says,
“Kids don’t even think about, ‘How can I use this when I get older?’ Now we are exposing them to these opportunities. There are so many different avenues they can go down in learning STEM.”