Students invited into the world of STEM through University of Chicago Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering programs

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The William Eckhardt Research Center at 57th and Ellis, home to the Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering (PME), has sleek glass walls. Rovana Popoff, PME’s senior associate dean and acting dean of students, sees them as a metaphor for making PME’s work transparent: “We want kids living in the area to walk by this building and say, ‘Hey, I did a project there! I know what goes on inside.’”

PME’s outreach programs bring students from kindergarten to college through Eckhardt’s doors — and send graduate students into local schools — to explore topics in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).

It’s all part of a long-term effort to encourage kids to become scientifically literate citizens, said Laura Rico-Beck, PME’s educational training and outreach coordinator. “We want kids to be aware early that STEM matters in every aspect of life, from their health to the food they eat to the climate.”

PME graduate students, trained to translate their research into engaging activities for a wide range of audiences, also travel to schools and other locations on the South Side to present their research and connect it to the real-world challenges they aspire to solve.

Young scientists discover new paths

PME partners with After School Matters on paid STEM lab internships for Chicago Public Schools students. Although they’re still in high school, the interns work on college-level research projects.

As a rising high school senior, Mia Grahn was excited to perform inorganic chemistry research alongside professors and graduate students. She already loved science, but says her internship was meaningful because it encouraged creativity and helped her become comfortable in a university research setting.

“I finally felt that I had found a place where asking deep questions and never settling for one answer was a fundamental characteristic of the community,” said Grahn, who’s currently working on a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering at Johns Hopkins University.

City Colleges students have support getting onto the STEM track

Last spring, when the University announced the $100 million commitment from the Pritzker Foundation that established PME as the nation’s first school dedicated to molecular engineering, a partnership between PME and the City Colleges of Chicago was an integral component of the launch.

Slated to begin in the summer of 2020, the collaboration will support City Colleges students who want to pursue four-year degrees in STEM fields. Developed with faculty from Truman College, it will include a five-week intensive prep course in STEM fundamentals, plus lab experiences and counseling in college readiness and admissions.

Schools learn from PME and vice versa

Outreach is an integral part of PME’s work, said Popoff, who added that PME faculty members are eager to build long-term relationships with schools and students, particularly those in the neighborhoods near campus.

For more information about the University of Chicago’s partnerships that focus on community impact, visit civicengagement.uchicago.edu — and to learn more about PME programs, visit pme.uchicago.edu.

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