STEAMbassadors Program Picking Up Steam

Northwestern University professor Nichole Pinkard received a CME Group Foundation grant to launch an ambitious science, technology, engineering, arts, and math (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 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 reimagine teaching and learning,” said 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 citywide and school district goals and efforts that advance equity.”

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.”

“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.

“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.”

The STEAMbassadors and program partners gathered virtually for 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.”

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.

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. 

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