The Illinois Science and Technology Coalition (ISTC) is a 30-year old, member-driven nonprofit that measures, connects and advocates for the Illinois tech economy, and ISTI (the Illinois Science and Technology Institute) is their C3 arm, specifically focused on the STEM talent pipeline. Since being established in 2012, ISTI has developed programs to better connect companies with classrooms to help cultivate the next generation of innovators and problem-solvers.
Before beginning their programs, the ISTI team spent an entire year researching and talking to educators and industry members about gaps in talent development. They found that a disconnect exists between what students are learning in classrooms and what happens in the real world. A recent Randstad report cited by Mark Harris found that a large number of students didn’t even know anyone with a job in STEM. “When asked to think about STEM jobs, [students] often mentioned NASA, not companies like Coca-Cola or State Farm,” Harris said. ISTI’s main goal: demystifying STEM careers for young people and connecting companies with classrooms in order to create a more inclusive and diverse talent pipeline. From this goal, the STEM Challenge was born.
“We want to demystify STEM careers for young people.” – Mark Harris, President & CEO of ISTCISTI’s STEM Challenge is a year-long process that invites students to tackle complex, interdisciplinary, real-world problems identified by industry. This year, there are 26 high schools participating in the STEM Challenge and 17 participating companies, amongst which you’ll find big names like Microsoft, Lenovo, AbbVie, Caterpillar and more. Generally, participating companies take on 1-3 schools, but Microsoft is taking a record-breaking 5 this year. Companies are scouted in the summer and the challenge content is facilitated by ISTI and devised by employees in order to achieve an authentic industry problem.
The goal is to present the students with “real, messy problems” that companies are facing. Schools and companies work together to define their own timeline and begin the year with a kickoff event where mentors, identified by the company, introduce themselves and their industry to the students. ISTI hosts a professional development for all participating teachers and provides coaches, all former educators, who help the teachers implement the challenge into their curriculum. After the kickoff, mentors visit the classroom throughout the year and even host the students at their organization for a site visit. In April, one team from each high school is chosen to attend the annual student showcase and present in front of an audience of 400+ industry professionals and peers.The high school students who participate in the STEM Challenge aren’t the only ones doing the innovating—ISTI developed the Mentor Matching Engine for the initiative. In between in person visits, the students and mentors use the tool weekly to stay connected, video conference, and to securely share files. The tool is an invite-only platform with embedded background checks to ensure student safety. The platform is also being used by nonprofits, school districts, and by a number of schools for independent research. Harris elaborated that the mentoring platform “allows for new ways of scaling—a way to reach even more schools and students.”
Currently, half of participating schools are Chicago Public Schools (CPS), 40% are suburban Chicago schools, and 10% are from southern Illinois, but ISTI continues to expand statewide. In the 2017-18 academic school year, 50% of student participants were female and just under half were people of color, both populations traditionally underrepresented in STEM fields. ISTI continues to deliberately strive to reach under-served populations in STEM.So, what are some key outcomes from the STEM Challenge? Each year, ISTI gives a post-challenge survey to students, teachers, and mentors. In the 2017-18 academic year, the survey found:
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