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Chicago nonprofit is sparking kids' interest in STEM

SparkShop is helping kids build positive associations with STEM to hopefully one day attract them to the engineering field.
Posted at 8:28 PM, Feb 22, 2023

For Shonali Ditz and her team at SparkShop, the biggest changes start in the classroom.

"We wanted to change the way that kids are introduced to engineering," Ditz said.

Since 2017, the Chicago-based education nonprofit has been working to inspire the next generation of engineers by providing fourth and fifth grade classrooms with free STEM curriculum and material kits for students.

"Our vision was really to demystify engineering for young people and show them what the jobs really are and not just what the stereotypes of the field are," Ditz said.

Engineering has long struggled with expanding representation. As of 2021, women only make up 35% of the STEM workforcein the U.S. For Hispanic, Asian and Black workers, it's 15, 10 and 9%, respectively.

It's a reality the SparkShop team is all too familiar with.

"Right now when you Google an engineer and Google Image it, a lot of those images unfortunately are not reflective of the identity that you have in the classroom," said Stephanie Batres Spezza, a curriculum development specialist at SparkShop.

But it's something they are working to address head-on and hands-on during classroom visit days.

"I know how impactful it is for them to be able to see engineers that look like them, who share these the backgrounds that they do and have opportunities to do hands-on things, things that are very contextualized to what their lives are," Spezza said.

So why work with fourth and fifth grade?

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One of the main goals for the SparkShop team is to inspire confidence and creativity in students from an early age. That way, they are able to take the skills they learn there and apply it to other areas of life.

"Fourth and fifth graders are at this point where they're starting to develop their sense of self around what they're good at in school," Ditz said. "That's where we start to lock in feelings like, 'I can't do math. I'm not good at science.' And so, if we can be there and give them this really positive experience with engineering, where we're elevating that the skills and strengths they have can be used in this field in this way, it really sticks. And it sticks through those difficult middle and high school years."

Right now the SparkShop team is working with 24 Chicago schools, and it has big plans to expand.

"Our programing is also 100% free to schools," Ditz said. "It's a big thing that we really believe in, but it does slow down how fast we're able to grow. So, we're working on sort of building out our organization, having some stability, reaching way more students in a year. Right now, we're at 1,000. We'd love for that to be more like 10,000 in the next few years."

With classrooms packed with potential, SparkShop is carving out a path forward in STEM, one lesson at a time.

"We want every kid that goes through this SparkShop to carry that engineering mindset and those skills into their lives and to feel like more empowered problem solvers and feel comfortable with technology because you can use that in any, any career," Ditz said.

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