STEM Research Engages Erie House Youth in Summer Learning

August 24, 2017 | Chicago, IL

Eighteen middle and high school students participated in a summer STEM research project at Erie Neighborhood House and shared their findings at a reception earlier this month.

The After School Matters initiative was facilitated by Mehak Hafeez, science instructor in the Youth Options Unlimited program at Erie House. Hafeez explained that the program engaged students in an intensive exploration of a topic of their choosing, in which she helped provide them with the resources and support they needed to conduct research and then disseminate their results.

STEM Project

Through a hands-on After School Matters program, students had the opportunity to select a topic to explore and share their findings with peers and members of the community. PHOTO BY BRIAN PAFF

A majority of students opted to stay within the more traditional hard sciences such as chemistry, physics, biology, but a few gravitated toward psychology and sociology. And for many, the research topics chosen took on some level of personal relevance.

“My grandma died of breast cancer,” explained Jamila Cephus, a freshman student at Golder College Prep, “so I wanted to see how it would impact my family.” She explored current research on the root causes of cancer, including corollary factors that can increase/reduce one’s chances of getting cancer.

And what did she learn? “You’ve got to exercise and eat healthy,” Cephus said. “You can still get cancer but those changes can help.”

“My grandma died of breast cancer, so I wanted to see how it would impact my family.”

- Jamila Cephus, freshman at Golder College Prep

Hafeez believes the ability to contextualize learning propelled the program’s success. “It’s a huge motivation,” she said. “That’s the concept I put into the classroom by giving them the freedom to research something that is important to them. I told them, ‘Find out what you want to study. Even if there is already research available, tweak it to make it your own.’”

The YOU program receives grant funding specifically for STEM education from After School Matters, UnidosUS and MAXIMUS Foundation. Hafeez worked on STEM initiatives with Erie House youth during the school year as well, establishing a foundation for the students to begin exploring a topic that appealed directly to them. 

Hafeez views the summer project as a great opportunity to get students interested in science and the scientific process by giving them hands-on experience. “I was really impressed with the fact that these kids were headstrong about the work they were doing,” she said. “At the end of the day it was something they appreciated learning.”

“It was better than staying home and playing video games all day,” said Andrew Garcia, an 11th grade student at Rauner High School. “I wanted to try to learn something new this summer, so I decided to come here.”

Garcia’s research examined motor oil and viscosity. He says he has watched his father take care of the family car, so he decided to learn more about exactly what it is—and in what conditions—motor oil does for a car. “My favorite part was figuring out how different types of oil viscosity affected the pennies I used in my experiment,” he said.

For Hafeez, seeing the students’ final presentations was quite satisfying. “It did take a lot of work, from brainstorming to writing hypotheses to doing the research,” she said. “But it really was rewarding.”


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