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Science Club in Uptown Receives National STEM Award

After-school program lauded for teaching middle school children STEM skills

EVANSTON, Ill. --- Northwestern University’s Science Club, developed in partnership with the Boys & Girls Clubs of Chicago, on Monday received the 2013 Afterschool STEM Impact Award from the Afterschool Alliance and the Noyce Foundation for its success in getting urban middle school students excited about science, technology, engineering and math. 

Science Club is a federally funded after-school science program for Chicago students from economically challenged neighborhoods. Club members gather weekly from September through June to design and conduct experiments, learn about scientific principles and test hypotheses under the careful mentorship of Northwestern graduate students and science staff.

“It’s extremely gratifying to see kids and scientists working together each and every week,” said Michael Kennedy, Science Club creator and director of Northwestern’s Science in Society initiative, a science outreach and public engagement office. “Not only are kids’ eyes opened to the science and health career options before them, but they also learn the critical thinking and evidence-based reasoning skills important for future academic success.”

Kennedy accepted the award, which includes a $10,000 check, on behalf of his team at an award ceremony and open house held Oct. 7 at the Pedersen-McCormick Club in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood, home to Science Club.

Students, mentors, Chicago Public School principals and Boys & Girls Clubs of Chicago and government officials enthusiastically applauded the recognition of a signature program that provides students with world-class science tailored just for them.

“This is an outstanding program, no question about it,” said James Keane, president and CEO of Boys & Girls Clubs of Chicago. “Science Club participants understand they really can achieve their dreams. Our children are getting the best level of science education at their ages anywhere.”

Science Club is one of only two programs nationwide to receive the honor. More than 200 programs were nominated for the award, which is being presented for the first time this year.

The Afterschool STEM Impact Awards recognize outstanding afterschool STEM programs that target students in fourth through eighth grades, serve students from populations underrepresented in STEM fields and can demonstrate the impact of their programs on students who participate.

Founded in 2008 with only 12 students and four mentors, Science Club now has 60 students from eight Chicago schools working with 30 mentors. The after-school program integrates community expertise from the Boys & Girls Clubs of Chicago, dedicated teachers from Chicago Public Schools and engaging scientist mentors from Northwestern to form a powerful educational team. 

“We are really proud of the work we’ve done here,” said Northwestern graduate student Amy Sebeson, who has been a mentor since the beginning of Science Club. “It’s great to see the same kids and same mentors coming back year after year.” She credits her experience with helping hone her non-research skills, such as teaching and communication. 

Visitors at the Oct. 7 open house got to see Science Club in action as students in fifth through eighth grades worked on Science Fair projects with Northwestern mentors. Science Club takes place in a dedicated lab facility built by Kennedy at the Pedersen-McCormick Club, giving club members the opportunity to conduct experiments and learn STEM skills in an authentic research facility.

Students time and again said they participate in Science Club for the education -- to increase their knowledge of science. Having fun came in a close second.

“The mentors will not hesitate to help me understand what I need to know,” said Mark D., an eighth-grader and longtime Science Club member, at the open house. “Even what I don’t need to know they teach me.”

One of his favorite experiments involved sugar crystallization -- how sugar molecules come together to form crystals, in this case, rock candy. “I liked the candy, and I wanted to know how it happened and why,” he said.

“Science is a way of thinking and a way to explore the world,” said Northwestern Vice President for Research Jay Walsh. “Our Northwestern students provide the students in Science Club with the opportunity to understand how scientists and engineers think. They guide the youth in an exploration of the world. This is a great experience for not just the Science Club students but also their Northwestern mentors.”

Graduate student Stephanie Rangel, who has been a Science Club mentor since early 2009, agreed wholeheartedly. 

“Science Club has hands down made my graduate school experience more fulfilling,” said Rangel, who this year established a Junior Science Club program with fellow Science Club mentor Julianne Hatfield at General Wood Boys & Girls Club in Chicago’s Little Village neighborhood. “This has been a tremendous learning experience for me. I’ve been able to learn different teaching strategies, how to plan and design curriculum, and now how to run my own program and build a relationship with a new community partner.”

“I am now looking forward to starting a career in science outreach and education and that is 100 percent because of my experience with Science Club and the mentorship I’ve gotten from Mike [Kennedy] and Rebecca [Daugherty],” Rangel said. (Daugherty is assistant director of Science in Society.)

Science Club is made possible by a Science Education Partnership Award from the National Institutes of Health. 

The award ceremony and Science Club open house was one of 8,000 “Lights On Afterschool” events organized by the Afterschool Alliance being held across the country this month as part of the nationwide rally for afterschool.

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