In the new Urban Ecology program, the SIUE STEM Center partnered with Boys and Girls Clubs in Bethalto and Lovejoy, Illinois, the Fairmont City Library and the Fairmont City Christian Activity Center to get kids interested in learning outside of school with hands-on activities.
Emily Wonnacott-Stanley, program coordinator for the SIUE Stem Center, said the STEM Center partnered with the Mannie Jackson Center to receive a grant from the National Recreation Foundation to develop the program. Wonnacott-Stanley said this summer, they focused on everything they could do outside that was STEM-related, which included putting on a star show with a portable planetarium, followed by using kits to make basic telescopes.
“[We] talked to them about how mirrors and lenses work to bring the stars closer to our eyes so we can examine them. We also did geocaching, so we used GPS units and talked about the importance of mapping and the technology involved with that, and how it can be a fun outdoor recreation thing you can do with your family,” Wonnacott-Stanley said. “We did rock collecting, which there was just no way to sell that as a fun, exciting thing, but once we got into it the kids were really excited about the different kinds of rocks that are in Illinois and why we don’t have things like big dinosaur fossils.”
Wonnacott-Stanley said the Urban Ecology Program is the offshoot program from their start with a grant in Madison County housing to do urban gardening. In that program, the STEM Center set up raised beds, did composting, and did lessons about food waste, composting and the importance of enriching soil.
“With COVID, we weren’t able to go on site anymore, so we tried to make things that the kids could do on their own. So we packaged it up and made it more of an urban ecology, so taking hikes, we have a whole series of nature hikes that we recorded that they could watch. We gave them bird guides to help them with identifying birds in their neighborhood,” Wonnacott-Stanley said. “It was still basically the same idea, getting the kids outside, connecting them to their environment, but during COVID it was hard. We had to do a lot of pivoting.”
Pat Tenllado Marsh, director of the Fairmont Christian Activity Center, said the benefit of the program is keeping children interested in science and learning.
“Not only science, but any kind of recycling activities and those things that I think they want to be part of but they really don’t know how to put it into their own lives. I think that’s where the benefit is,” Tenllado Marsh said. “We are right there, in the place that they live, not in a school building and they can be as curious as they want and inquisitions are answered and there’s hands-on activities.”
Tenllado Marsh said there were two sessions, the first being for kindergarteners and first graders.
“We did a lot of recycling and craft making, like bird feeders and things and showed them how to reuse items like their water bottles and so forth, and then we did some planting and a little bit of gardening, talking about how to get things to grow,” Tenllado Marsh said.
Kylee Short, site coordinator for the Boys and Girls Club of Greater St. Louis, worked with the teens, who did activities including geocaching, a chemistry lesson and an escape the box challenge in which they had to use clues to figure out the code and unlock the box, similar to an escape room.
“They got competitive with the geocaching, and definitely with the … escape the box,” Short said. “It seemed like they wanted to get creative too in their own way, like take their own curiosity, especially when they were doing the chemistry stuff, you know, ‘Can we try this?’ or ‘Can we try that? What will happen if this happens?’ And they let them just run with it.”
Wonnacott-Stanley said the STEM Center will continue working with the Christian Activity Center into the fall, and she is hoping to incorporate sound science.
“We are moving into Madison School’s 21st Century Program,” Wonnacott-Stanley said. “We start that next month and we will be going two days a week for pretty much the entire fall semester and part of the spring semester.”