by Aaron Cortes

News from the Field: 21st CCLC Pathways Promotes STEM for All

On a warm, sunny morning, a bus with middle school students arrived at Northeastern Illinois University’s main campus. They were there to learn how to build terrestrial robots, design underwater robots, produce video games, and create theatrical plays. The excitement on the bus was palpable, as these students had never visited a college campus before. This was not a unique experience for our program.

The students were part of the 21st CCLC Pathways afterschool program, which is based at the Center for College Access and Success of Northeastern Illinois University. The program provides STEM/STEAM (science, technology, engineering, [arts,] and mathematics) activities, including VEX robotics and SeaPerch underwater robotics. The use of robotics exposes students to the field of engineering. Through building robots, students learn critical thinking skills, problem solving, engineering design process, math, physics, computer programming (coding), and arts, the last of which is embedded as part of students’ design thinking. Students have been very enthusiastic about the program. One student from Heritage Middle School captures the excitement of many of our students by exclaiming, “Are you serious! I can take this robot apart and rebuild how ever I would like to. That is just so awesome.”

Our program includes a near-peer tutoring component to connect our middle school students with upper-level high school students and college-enrolled students of the same background and who reside in the same neighborhood. We use this approach because we believe that students react positively to adults who are closer to students’ own age and acquainted with their backgrounds. We have seen the students develop strong relationships with the tutors, as showcased by their eagerness to join their tutors for lunch during the summer and readiness to participate in team activities. Similarly, our tutoring component includes high school seniors recruited from Northeastern Illinois University’s TRIO Upward Bound Math and Science program, which aims to help students recognize and develop their potential to excel in math and science, as 21st CCLC Pathways STEM leader interns. These young role models serve as a support structure to engage and relate with our middle school students. With the help of their near-peer tutors and STEM leader interns, students not only learn mathematics, science, reading, and writing, but also develop interest in and identify the relevancy of these topics in their own lives. 

At the end of each one of our modules we host a symposium where program participants have the opportunity to present their acquired knowledge and developed outcomes to the families, middle school administrators, superintendents, and university upper management. During the symposium students showcase their robots through scrimmages and presentations. Parents and families are provided with the opportunity to understand and engage in the work that their children produce. In this way we are able to promote and encourage engagement in STEM education. Similarly, the symposium also allows families to be vested and supportive of our 21st CCLC Pathways program. Our summer STEM symposium hosted around 100 families who were welcomed by our university president. 

In addition to robotics, 21st CCLC Pathways offers other STEM programs, such as Scientist for Tomorrow 2.0, a partnership with Columbia College. This partnership is based on the idea of developing, testing, and implementing hands-on modules that are engaging for youth and families to excel in STEM. 

We believe that providing students with relevant opportunities that encourage critical thinking and 21st century skills while promoting college access and readiness are core to our program’s vision and mission to make sure that we are #STEMforALL advocates.