While a growing number of parents, educators and politicians are supporting science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education, Homewood’s Betsy Soehren-Jones has been a one-woman force for making STEM education happen in the South Suburbs.
“It really all started out as a mom looking for programs for her kids,” Soehren-Jones said in an interview with the HF Chronicle. With two inquisitive daughters, Emma and Nina, ages 5 and 8 at the time, she was looking for enrichment opportunities that would allow her children to expand on what they were learning at school.
When she didn’t find what she was looking for locally, she created it.
Her efforts led to the development of STEM workshops for elementary school students. She is serving on the Homewood science center’s local stakeholder team and has organized a Girl Scout troop that’s focusing on STEM activities.
Soehren-Jones’ STEM project recently earned a $10,000 Energy for the Community Volunteer Award sponsored by Exelon. The grant will be used as seed money by Marian Catholic High School to launch an engineering program for Marian Catholic students and an engineering camp for local seventh and eighth graders.
Soehren-Jones’ first big STEM project in the South Suburbs was a weekend hands-on science workshop. In the year that she researched how to establish the program, Soehren-Jones organized the special sessions, drafted a curriculum and marketed the program. Marian Catholic, ComEd and Northwestern University’s Center for Talent Development (CTD) were sponsors of the workshops, according to a ComEd news release.
Since the first class in fall 2013, there have been a total of four classes and 61 area students who have benefitted from the STEM program.
After the first successful workshop, Northwestern officials told her if the momentum continued to build the school would be willing to increase the number of workshops.
“We got into a situation where about a week before the actual event we were scrambling to find additional teachers,” she said of the fall 2014 workshop. “We ended up with four teachers for two classes.”
The fifth and sixth grade class focused on sports engineering class. The first day for the younger students was all about the science of balls, how balls bounce, the effect of shape and velocity. Students compared basketballs and golf balls, dissecting golf balls to see how they are constructed.
The second day focused on a project. Students were invited to design and build a mini-golf course.
“We gave them a bunch of supplies and said ‘the world is your oyster,'” she said. “We made the parents play the course before they could take the kids home.”
The older students were presented with a crime scene and they had to try to solve the crime.
“They had to collect the evidence from the scene,” Soehren-Jones said, including hair and blood samples and finger prints. They also got to create a plaster cast of a foot print.
“They loved the foot casts, so we took them out into the courtyard, and everyone had to make a footprint cast out of plaster,” she said “They had a good time.”
The 2015 workshops will be Nov. 7-8 for students in grades three through eight. The sessions will focus on age-appropriate computer programming.
Soehren-Jones envisioned the workshops as an opportunity for students in the immediate area, so she was surprised and delighted when they attracted parents and students from as far away as Hinsdale.
That was an interesting fact for Homewood village officials. One of their goals for the community science center is to attract more visitors to Homewood. Soehren-Jones addressed the village board of trustees in February, sharing ideas for making the proposed science center a self-sustaining operation.
In spite of the success of the workshops, Soehren-Jones still had a problem. The workshops are annual events. The Homewood science center is still in the planning stages.
And her daughters are curious all the time.
She wanted more frequent learning opportunities for them and other local girls, so she started a STEM-focused Girl Scout troop.
“Girl Scouts is such a neat organization. They have a STEM line (of activities),” she said. “It was basically, ‘How do I take the opportunities they’ve created and bring them into the community?'”
The troop has 15 second graders and meets Saturday mornings at the Homewood Public Library, which Soehren-Jones lauded for its STEM-oriented programs and resources.
In February, the Scouts got a lesson in power system functions and safety from a ComEd representative, Maurice Nutall.
Using a model to demonstrate, he showed the girls learned about how power is made in a power plant, how it gets to homes and businesses and how to be safe around power lines.
Soehren-Jones is pleased with the momentum the various STEM projects represent.
“I now realize how one person’s passion for something can help inspire others,” she has said. “I started out with a vision to create a STEM program and with the help of other motivated community members, we’ve created an outpouring of positive momentum that has benefitted dozens of students and there’s a potential to touch hundreds more. It’s a very powerful thing, and I’m so grateful to and proud of the entire community.”
Contact Eric Crump at [email protected]
Homewood community science center project moves forward (HF Chronicle, Feb. 11, 2015)
Residents tinker with community science center idea (H Chronicle, April 22, 2015)