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URBANA — Several University of Illinois faculty members who are part of a new “Communiversity Think and Do Tank” want the public’s help in designing a wellness center inside Lincoln Square Mall.

The project is also part of a larger “STEM Illinois” initiative designed to encourage young people in the community and their parents to get involved in science, technology, engineering and math.

Connecting those efforts is Ruby Mendenhall, professor of sociology and African-American studies and assistant dean for diversity and democratization of health innovation at the Carle Illinois College of Medicine.

She said organizers of the “Think and Do Tank” want to bring the university and community together to talk about social issues and “what we would like to build on,” and the wellness center is one aspect.

Parents who want to give their children access to resources and STEM education might need support themselves, she said.

“When the parents are stressed and worried about other things, it may be hard for them to focus,” she said.

The wellness center could include meditation classes, dance classes or a resource board where people can get information on jobs or wellness services.

“I would love a space that is beautiful and calming, and when you go in there’s a sense of community,” Mendenhall said.

An informal meeting about the wellness center is scheduled for 6 to 8 p.m. today at the food court inside Lincoln Square. Mendenhall hopes to get initial input tonight and host a more formal planning session next semester.

The STEM Illinois initiative, funded by the chancellor’s office, is modeled after a similar effort in New Orleans by Calvin Mackie, a former Tulane University engineering professor and entrepreneur. Mackie founded the nonprofit group STEM NOLA to engage students in science, engineering and math.

Every second Saturday, he opens up a gym and invites students and parents to work with a drone, see how a cow’s heart pumps, or hear NASA engineers talk about building the next rocket, Mendenhall said. The goal is to get young people excited about STEM, especially African-Americans, who are underrepresented in those fields, she said.

The UI plans to adopt that model, with Mackie’s help, and host a “STEM Fest” next spring followed by a series of “STEM Saturdays,” she said.

UI music lecturer Will Patterson and Malaika McKee, visiting assistant professor of African-American studies, are also involved in the projects.


Julie Wurth is a reporter covering the University of Illinois at The News-Gazette. Her email is, and you can follow her on Twitter (@jawurth).