All photos courtesy of Project Exploration
In Back of the Yards, far from the upward thrust of skyscrapers, sits La Casa Hildalgo. This modern learning campus, in the heart of Chicago’s Pilsen community, was a fertile arena for six-weeks this past summer as 13 high school students eagerly explored STEM.
From July 5th through August 10th, these enthusiastic – yet apprehensive – teenagers embarked on a journey of exploration. While many of their friends were chillaxin’ during the heavy heat of summer, they dedicated four hours a day, four days a week to expanding their minds and discovering the exciting world of engineering, technology, business and more.
Uzziel Fernandez, a Junior at the Illinois Institute of Technology and STEM Facilitator at Project Exploration, was excited to start expanding minds, sparking creativity and inspiring a passion for STEM education and careers. Fearlessly he jumped right in and introduced the Student Racing Challenge. One of his main goals was to help students recognize problems, think about ways to fix them and come up with creative solutions. Another goal was to make sure students worked on their public speaking skills, an essential skill for a successful life.
Since the first week was a short week of just two days, he introduced the plan for the next five weeks. Interests soared as the 7 male and 6 female students, ranging from 9th to 12th grade, started unpacking the 1:10 scale remote control cars. He let the teens get familiar with the cars and drive them within the four walls of the classroom. “Working with cars is by far my favorite part. But, without all the other fields incorporated in the curriculum like the graphic design, business and cooperation, the car wouldn’t be as much fun,” shared Uzi.
The weeks to follow would consist of many new opportunities. Going beyond the curriculum, Uzi asked students to research new information and he provided lots of hands-on activities to further cultivate problem-solving skills. Each day would start by finishing up any unfinished projects, collectively discuss new knowledge, document notes on the board, and engage in hands-on activities.
Brainstorming team names and logo designs quickly got underway. During the long and tedious process, the students discovered their voices and within days, students were voluntarily participating in classroom discussions as well as starting conversations among themselves. Friendships were blooming and one student said out loud, “I’m happy that I signed up for this program. I like what we can do here.” While another shared, “I like feeling like a part of something.”
Students explored the essential elements of the cars. They learned about motors, tires, wheels, and gears. The program engaged students in scientific activities like finding speed and graphing results. But, more importantly, students were learning how to make sense of the data. Recognizing the vital components of the cars and understanding their purpose, students were able to brainstorm how to optimize performance.
The students quickly learned the possibilities are endless. Uzi overheard one team saying they wanted better motors with different gear ratios. On the other side of the classroom another group of students wanted to reduce weight and get new tires. While another team was talking about getting more powerful batteries and adding some better grease to the inside of the car. With a smile from ear to earn, Uzi realized he had successfully found ways to help these students connect their experiences to big ideas in STEM.
The throbbing pulse of the RC cars screamed across the sizzling hot pavement of the big open parking lot behind La Casa Hildago. Under the hot blazing sun in temperatures rising above 90 degrees the students critical thinking flourished. They actively built on previous lessons figuring out problems, brainstorming solutions and creating plans to overcome challenging mechanical obstacles.
Beyond the cars, teens dove into business topics as well. They learned about Gantt Charts and planning the final showcase. Students gathered to devise plans to attract the community to come to the big event. For what seemed like an eternity, they planned and practiced. Students excitement grew as they canvased local businesses seeking sponsors and advertising the event. In preparation for the big day, students finished their last designs and practiced their communication skills. “It feels good to have made something and feel proud of it,” shared a student.
With the support of After School Matters and Project Exploration, along with community members, the final showcase highlighted the students achievements. They raced their final modified cars. Some drivers focused on controlling the vehicle while others wanted to get more laps. Confidence was born. Smiles were bright.
They built something and called it their own. They formed team identities, made modifications to the cars, designed car bodies and so much more. “Being able to create something from scratch and call it yours is a great feeling,” shared Uzi.
The students had a blast incorporating all they learned throughout the six-week program. Uzi saw the students excel in so many different areas. He took them outside their comfort zones and they discovered skills they never knew they had. They reflected on the program and showed amazing transformation embracing learning and applying skills learned while having loads of fun.
In a city that sometimes seems bigger than life, with the sun gracefully setting against the backdrop of a successful summer exploring the fabulous world of STEM innovation, one student happily voiced, “So when does the Fall program start?”