Mentors from companies foster STEM learning at local schools

Companies foster STEM learning at local schools

  • Wheeling High School students meet with consultants from the TGG Group in Chicago on their behavioral economics research project.

    Wheeling High School students meet with consultants from the TGG Group in Chicago on their behavioral economics research project. Courtesy of District 214

  • Downers Grove South High School is one of 29 schools participating in an Illinois program to promote STEM education by connecting students and mentors to do real-world research. This is an initial meeting to roll out the program.

    Downers Grove South High School is one of 29 schools participating in an Illinois program to promote STEM education by connecting students and mentors to do real-world research. This is an initial meeting to roll out the program. Courtesy of Michael Heinz, Downers Grove North

 
Updated 4/11/2016 3:29 PM
The article was updated to clarify the names of two groups: TGG Group is formerly known as The Greatest Good and the nonprofit that runs the program is Illinois Science and Technology Institute.

This semester, students at Wheeling High School have been collaborating with members of the TGG Group, formerly known as The Greatest Good, which was co-founded by economist Steven Levitt, one of the authors of "Freakonomics."

For the last few weeks, they have been crafting their questions together on a research project that mirrors what the TGG Group specializes in: separating causation from correlation, or figuring out why we make the decisions we do.

 

In industry terms, they are researching behavior economics.

"This is largely based off of 'nudge' theory. or how companies 'nudge' us as consumers to buy their products," says Alan Wahlert, head of the social science department at the school.

The Wheeling students and their partnership with the TGG Group is the latest example of a program launched in 2011 by the Illinois Science and Technology Institute as part of its Research & Development STEM Learning Exchange.

This one program -- there are eight in all -- aims to partner high school students with corporate partners to solve complex, real-world problems.

At Downers Grove North High School, students in AP environmental science classes, as well as its Science & Engineering and Women in Science clubs, are involved in the same program. They have been working with scientists from Illinois State University's Center for Renewable Energy to come up with their own unique forms of renewable energy.

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They are working in teams on 12 different projects and will present their findings at the culminating STEM Challenge event May 19 at the Merchandise Mart in Chicago. Their projects include developing excess energy storage batteries, a phone-charging bike and a solar powered, multiuse jacket.

All of which delights Michael Heinz, science department chair at Downers Grove North. He has been teaching for 25 years and has led his department for the last five.

Science classrooms in general are incorporating more STEM programs and learning-based experiences into their curriculum.

"Science doesn't just take place in a 50-minute class," Heinz says. "We can't just expect them to answer a work sheet after completing a lab and expect them to memorize the information.

"Kids learn differently nowadays," he adds. "They are getting all kinds of information, instantly, from the Internet. But it's not just about gathering information, it's about building information."

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

In all, there are 29 participating high schools involved in the STEM Learning Exchange and in its Mentor Matching Engine, which allows students to search for a corporate mentor that matches with their designated field of expertise.

Other local schools participating in the program include Mundelein, Palatine, Maine South and Downers Grove South high schools.

Katie Page, a physics teacher at Prospect High School and head of the Women in STEM program, says her students turned to the Mentor Matching Engine before undertaking their research. They communicate mostly online, asking the mentors questions and getting advice.

"This is the coolest thing I've done as an educator," Page says. "My kids are motivated and excited."

Mentors participating in the program come from Takeda, Motorola, Northrop Grumman, University of Illinois and more than 50 other companies and universities.

"This experience is invaluable," says Wahlert at Wheeling High School. "Our students get to make connections between their own primary research in a real world application."

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