Naperville students seek corporate sponsor for STEM expansion of teen center

STEM is everywhere in Naperville schools.

There are advanced science classes and personal Chromebook laptops. There are robotics clubs, math teams and portable green screens. Seminars encourage girls to try computer coding and students of diverse backgrounds to learn engineering.

But while science, technology, engineering and math are a focus of education throughout the suburbs, a group of Naperville teens wants STEM to find a home outside of school, too.

Teen leaders at the Alive Center are hoping to raise $100,000 in corporate sponsorships to furnish and equip a new space next to their existing hangout where students can explore scientific or technological disciplines - without the structure and pressure of school.

"We're hoping to give them a place to go to do what they want," said Jatin Mathur, an incoming senior at Naperville North High School.

STEM in school can come with stereotypes, Naperville North incoming junior Isha Srinivasan says: It's not for girls. (Or in some programs, it's only for girls.) It's for minorities. It's too hard.

Within the new space she and her peers hope to create, STEM activities wouldn't come with those assumptions.

Isha could lead the Coding Club she launched with computers for students to download specialized software.

Jatin could lead the Science Exploration Club he created with more room to do things like build hovercrafts.

And kids younger than the sixth- through 12th-graders who are welcome in the Alive Center's main space will be able to get an early taste of what STEM fields have to offer, which recent high school graduate Caitlin Holzer says will help them later in life.

The space next to the Alive Center at 500 W. Fifth Ave. is soon to be vacant as Paul Davis Restoration moves to a nearby location. Kandice Henning, founder and president of the Alive Center, says the business is expected to clear out of its space at 502 W. Fifth Ave. by the end of August.

So the teens who want to expand the square footage for their STEM interests have to act fast.

Funding for the project would buy furniture, computers, video editing software and hardware, a 3-D printer, and a variety of tools to equip a technology workshop. It would pay for increased utilities, insurance and extra security cameras, and it would allow the Alive Center to hire a full-time development director.

"People want to fund STEM," Henning said, "but we do need to sustain this going forward."

Teens say they imagine several uses for the 3,200-square-foot office.

The front could be transformed into a quiet area with couches and beanbag chairs for students to read or chill to music from their headphones.

"This place gets really noisy sometimes during drop-in," Henning said. "The tutoring and education can be hard when it's so loud."

The middle of the potential STEM addition would contain a conference table for club meetings or group work, along with cubicles for tutoring.

An office to one side would be transformed into a media room for Rajveer Sokhey, an incoming junior at Naperville North, to use along with fellow participants in the Alive Media Group. Rajveer says he plans a green screen, computers for editing videos and a round table for meetings.

The back of the new area would be, as Jatin and Isha say, "half computers and half workshop."

"With this, everyone has space to explore without limitation," Isha said.

Naperville North Principal Stephanie Posey calls Jatin, Isha and Rajveer some of the school's "best and brightest" and says she's encouraged by their interest in STEM.

"Our students are getting experience and exposure to those types of skills and equipment and career paths at school," Posey said. "I'm hoping they're looking to expand the opportunities in the evenings and the weekends when they may not have access from a school point of view. I'm hoping it's an extension and a support of what we're already doing."

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