•  ()
  •  ()
  • Print this Story
  • Email this Story

Fifth-grade Engineers

Science Club leads urban youth in hands-on projects and scientific fun

text size AAA
March 1, 2010
Video produced by Andrea Albers and Steve Won, Medill '10

EVANSTON, Ill. --- Fifth-grader Amari S. spends Thursday afternoons using household materials to build an arm for a fictional Afghani girl who lost the limb in a landmine.

Amari is a member of Science Club, an after-school program founded by Northwestern's Michael Kennedy and Carolyn Jahn. Geared toward fifth- to eighth-grade urban youth, the club operates from Chicago's Barreto Boys & Girls Club in Humboldt Park and the McCormick Boys & Girls Club in Uptown, where Amari is learning about what it means to be an engineer.

Both clubs are led in hands-on activities by graduate students pursuing a degree in the sciences and Northwestern staff. Kids who choose to return for multiple sessions, the majority in the club, are partnered with the same mentor.

Previous sessions covered a tour of the digestive tract and a crime scene investigation, which ended in a mock trial. Currently the youth are studying prosthetics and engineering, using educational materials developed by Suzanne Olds, assistant chairperson of the biomedical engineering department in the McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science.

Amari and her group, led by Brandon Tefft, a fifth-year doctoral candidate in biomedical engineering, need to design an arm strong enough to lift 10 pounds yet functional enough to pick up an olive without breaking its skin. "From the elbow on down is missing," Amari explained, constructing a forearm with women's stockings, a slab of PVC pipe and kitchen sponges. "We have to make a comfortable place for it to adjust to the elbow."

Weekly activities build knowledge and skills leading to the final project. This week the members were instructed to tie their dominant hand and test ways to do everyday tasks, like tying shoes, with a disability. 

Science Club mentors also reinforce scientific habits like forming a hypothesis and experimentation, noted Jahn, associate professor of cell and molecular biology in the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. "We're also doing a program on Afghani culture and geography so they understand what sort of conditions they're designing the arm for," she said.

"Our goal is to get the kids to think critically and be creative," said Kennedy, director of science outreach and public engagement for the Office for Research. "We hope to inspire and empower them to take the next step to perhaps higher education or even a career in science."

In October, Science Club received a Science Education Partnership Award from the National Institutes of Health of $1.4 million dollars over the next five years. The grant will be used for continued Science Club programming and a thorough evaluation of its effectiveness in raising interest in science. As Kennedy notes, the Chicago Public School system, the third largest school district in the country, performs poorly in math and science compared to its suburban peers.

Partnering with the Boys & Girls Club organization has been key to the program's initial success, according to Kennedy. "In addition to serving the kids that are most in need - those from low-income, single parent families - the clubs have a wealth of programming for life skills, leadership, health and the arts. We share common goals." 

"Most Boys & Girls Clubs don't have the benefit of having world-class faculty and graduate students from Northwestern come to their club every week," said Mitch Day, program director at the McCormick Boys & Girls Club. "So it's really been a blessing for our kids."

If successful, Kennedy hopes Science Club will become a model for other universities developing community-based outreach programs.

Jennifer Koerner, middle school science teacher at McCutcheon Elementary School located next door to the McCormick Boys & Girls Club, can see a difference in her students since the start of Science Club. "They are more willing to put themselves out there and take risks. They're just more experimental."

Topics: University, Neighborhood