To Make, Play and Connect

by Kathleen Brown
University of Illinois Extension

In its second year, the 4G STEM Camp expanded its efforts to reach more youth.

Science, Technology, Engineering and Math… the STEM disciplines. We’re told they are the key to the secure, high-paying jobs of the future; to addressing global challenges related to food, water, energy and health; and to growing innovative industries that compete and prosper in the global economy. But there’s a problem. Employers are struggling to find workers with the skills and credentials for STEM jobs today, and too few youth are entering the educational pipeline for the STEM jobs of tomorrow.

Studies show that engagement in STEM activities increases the likelihood that students will choose STEM fields when they enter college. One study found that 25 percent of the pre-college students participating in a university’s STEM engagement program eventually entered STEM majors on its campus. In its second year, University of Illinois Extension’s 4G STEM Camp (Girls + Games + Gadgets = Genius!) doubled the number of girls in attendance and expanded to include teen teachers and other community partners.

A Weeklong Experience
The success of the first 4G STEM Camp last year encouraged planners to look for ways to improve the camp and reach more youth. “Hosting a camp for youth is a great experience for those who can attend,” explains Judy Schmidt, Extension youth development educator. “However, to reach a larger number of youth with STEM programming, it is vital to engage community partners, including teachers and librarians.”

For that reason, the 2015 camp offered two tracks for participants and engaged four local teachers and librarians in the weeklong experience, as well as engaging 27 teachers and librarians in a two-day in-service. Partners from Bradley University’s Center for STEM Education, the Greater Peoria Economic Development Council, University of Illinois Center for Digital Inclusion, Champaign-Urbana Community Fab Lab and University of Illinois Extension provided programming for youth and adult participants.

The camp was designed around site visits to four Peoria-area businesses. Successful women working in STEM careers provided an orientation to their work, including the skills, technologies and strategies needed to excel in their jobs. The experience ignited a spark of possibility within these girls, grounded in the reality of dynamic women leading creative, fulfilling careers in Peoria.

When asked what the best part of their day was, one camp participant shared, “Learning about the sensors that the [autonomous] cars use and how they work.” Another student said her biggest surprise was “that a group of 12 and 13-year-olds could build simulators.” The campers’ parents were also asked for their thoughts, which can be summed up by this quote: “This program is wonderful! Such a fantastic way to present career opportunities to these young ladies.”

Training in Digital Literacy
Additional STEM programming opportunities were held in Peoria Heights and at the Peoria Riverfront Museum, focusing on the development of essential digital literacy skills. The Digital Leadership Innovation Program (DILP) was designed to build and extend partnerships in local communities to support events and programming focused on three learning areas: digital manufacturing, digital media production and data analytics. Whether it’s 3D printing, programming a robot or producing a movie, participants learn to build, create and think using an iterative design process.

The Digital Innovation Leadership Program is a partnership of the U of I Center for Digital Inclusion at the Graduate School of Library and Information Science, Illinois Extension and the Champaign-Urbana Community Fab Lab, a unit of the Illinois Informatics Institute. It is supported by funding from the Illinois Extension and Outreach Initiative—a special partnership among the Extension, the Dean of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences, and U of I’s Office of the Provost; the Illinois Informatics Institute; and the Graduate School of Library and Information Science.

This program offers numerous benefits for a range of stakeholders. For educators, it provides opportunities for digital literacy training and access to the DILP curriculum for classroom use. For youth, it offers exposure to new technologies through hands-on learning and develops essential critical-thinking, creativity and design skills. Community leaders can access tools to help assess community needs, identify stakeholders and leverage community resources in support of digital literacy development. Elected officials have the opportunity to learn best practices for leveraging data analytics for policy and government use. Finally, perhaps the most successful aspect of DILP is the Teens as Teachers component, in which teens are trained and mentored to deliver programming for 4H camps, community events and even adult education.

Economic centers like Peoria are smart to invest in their local workforce, which has the talented people businesses are most likely to identify, recruit and retain as long-term employees. This camp—and the partnership that established it—is part of a growing network of students, educators and business leaders that aspires to develop a diverse STEM workforce within the region. iBi

Kathleen Brown is community/economic development educator at the University of Illinois Extension. For more information about Extension programs in youth development or community and economic development programs in the Fulton-Mason-Peoria-Tazewell Extension unit, contact Brown at brownlk@illinois.edu or Judy Schmidt, metro youth educator, at schmid7@illinois.edu.

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