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Enrichment online in a crisis

SESP creates open-access learning resources to keep communities engaged through the COVID-19 pandemic

Within days of schools closing in response to the coronavirus pandemic, Learning Sciences professor Nichole Pinkard was inundated with calls from her family and friends, asking how they could keep their children engaged at home. Pinkard was in a unique position to help.

“During this pandemic, parents everywhere are looking for ways to engage their kids through online learning activities,” Pinkard says. “So, we created a free digital platform that gave parents a whole host of opportunities to do just that.” 

Nichole Pinkard
Nichole Pinkard

STEAMville is an open-access digital platform that offers educational content — curated by a team of curriculum designers, former teachers and software developers within Northwestern's School of Education and Social Policy — focused on science, technology, engineering, the arts and math (STEAM). Families create a free account to use the platform, where students can learn about coding, digital media, engineering design and more. 

Throughout her career, Pinkard has built several digital learning tools and programs for youth, with a specific focus on “out-of-school” learning taking place outside of the classroom. She has created digital learning platforms for Chicago and Evanston students, and she founded and runs the Digital Youth Divas program for middle school-age girls.

Calling on the SESP community

As soon as the coronavirus crisis began, Pinkard realized she could use her expertise, the existing platforms for Chicago and Evanston, and her community networks to meet the needs of families beyond the Chicago and Evanston school districts, who were all suddenly seeking enrichment for their kids while at home.

Pinkard worked with her community partners and colleagues within SESP’s Office of Community Education Partnerships (OCEP), which she co-directs, to identify online opportunities to include on the platform. 

“Many of our OCEP faculty work with national organizations, and those relationships helped us build out STEAMville’s offerings,” Pinkard says. “The platform curates intentionally designed activities and resources from all over the country to support student and family engagement with STEAM.” 

STEAMville’s content is organized into playlists, with a series of activities and resources connected by a central theme or topic. The platform is facilitated by mentors known as STEAMbassadors.  A new SESP initiative, the STEAMbassadors: Community STEAM Mentorship Program trains City Colleges of Chicago students to support online and face-to-face STEAM learning for youth. 

STEAMville is a result of SESP’s longstanding commitment to the broader community and the relationships the school has fostered. This swift response to the COVID-19 crisis was made possible by the strong foundation and the connections that were formed over many years.


Northwestern offerings for all

From its inception, OCEP has worked to connect the university to the broader community, which meant the office was uniquely situated to offer learning opportunities for all during the COVID-19 pandemic. OCEP curated a collection of Northwestern’s free, open-access digital learning resources, which span art, science, engineering and more. 

The collection includes the Block Museum’s “The Block from Home”, an indigenous tour of Northwestern, and podcasts like US: Unscripted Stories from the Multicultural Student Affairs Office and the One Book One Northwestern podcast. A video series from Feinberg School of Medicine professor Melissa Simon on careers in the healthcare field, and computer science offerings like and CT-STEM and NetLogo are also among the resources available.

“There’s a lot happening at Northwestern right now, in terms of online offerings,” says SESP research project coordinator Emily DePalma. “We wanted to showcase those things, but also put them in one place so that it’s really easy for kids, parents, educators and anyone else to access all these different materials.”