Academy links STEM lessons, families
CHAMPAIGN — When Reuben Chambers' artsy fourth-grade son joined a STEM-focused after-school program, he never imagined little Donovyn would wind up teaching him a thing or two about electrical engineering.
"It's endearing," Chambers said.
Chambers and his son together are members of the St. Elmo Brady's STEM Academy at Booker T. Washington and Garden Hills elementary schools. Sponsored by the Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering department at the University of Illinois, the kids spend time learning how to conduct various experiments that align with science and math concepts they've learned in class.
It's held Tuesday and Thursday mornings at the two elementaries. And on Saturdays, their dads, or any other adult male guardian, gets to tag along.
"My son is an artistic person, so this is something new for us to talk about and do together," Chambers said. "I love seeing his enthusiasm for us to spend time together and I know he is learning something that will benefit and encourage him further down the road when he starts thinking about careers."
Donovyn, a Booker T. Washington student, says he used to want to be a dancer when he grew up. Now, he wants to be a dancer and an electrical engineer, and said the activities he's learning while at St. Elmo's every week will help him become just that.
Named after the first black man to earn his Ph.D. in chemistry, St. Elmo's is an eight-week program for fourth- and fifth-graders, launched at the start of each semester and aimed at exposing minority students to STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) through fun activities and experiments.
The academy's cofounder, Jerrod Henderson — a UI faculty member — says the inclusion of prominent male figures in the workshops is a vital part of what makes the program work so well.
"Just from some of the research I've done, that engagement is key," he said. "When parents are working with their kids, especially fathers and sons, it sticks. Research suggests that if a parent is in a certain field, their kids are more likely to consider that field.
"With some of our underrepresented kids, when the parents are engaged and appreciating something, it opens their eyes to a different perspective. We find the kids are more engaged and want to go back home and teach their brothers or sisters about what they're learning. It was that kind of exposure that encouraged me as a sixth-grader."
Henderson and his department's Outreach Coordinator, Ricky Greer, founded the group in the spring of 2013. It started as a pilot program with 10 students on the UI campus. In just two years, the academy has grown to include nearly 40 students from the two Unit 4 elementaries. While geared toward black and Hispanic students — two groups underrepresented in the STEM field — organizers "turn no kids away," Henderson said.
With the help of UI undergraduate and graduate student volunteers in chemical and biomolecular engineering, coordinators just wrapped up the fourth semester of the program. At noon today, in the final event of the year, students will showcase their work at a science fair at Garden Hills.
To prep for the big show, students picked their favorite experiment from the semester and teamed up to create interactive experiment booths to show off what they've learned.
"It is always so amazing to watch these young men explain these ideas from their understanding and engage with the community," Henderson said.
And Donovyn, who alongside Booker T. Washington fourth-grader Langston Span and UI grad student Eric Seabron will present his experiment on "electric clothing," said he's excited to share the things he and his dad learned about electrical engineering with family and friends.
"It's really encouraging having my dad there for workshops. I like having him there and my friends do, too. We do cool experiments, it's a way to spend time together; he comes almost every single Saturday," Donovyn said. "With electrical engineering, you need to do certain things to learn how to make a circuit run right. It can be really fun."