STEM Learning Exchange Challenge Inspires Innovation, Real-World Problem-Solving for Chicago Students

 |   Adam J. Hecktman

STEM Learning Exchange Challenge Inspires Innovation, Real-World Problem-Solving for Chicago Students

Meet Dr. Joshua Peschel. Josh is a professor and researcher at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. He teaches courses in soil and water engineering, geographical information systems and robotics. His current research currently takes him into the realm of human-computer interaction and human-robot interaction for civil and environmental engineering systems. Specifically he is interested in understanding how human factors can be leveraged to support adoption of emerging technologies (think unmanned systems and intelligent user interfaces) for building resilience into our cities.

STEM Learning Exchange Challenge Inspires Innovation, Real-World Problem-Solving for Chicago StudentsHis background is inspiring in and of itself. But when you put him in front of High School students, as I did last week, you see inspiration in action.   This past week, we teamed up with Illinois Science and Technology Institute’s R&D STEM Learning Exchange and Lake View High School to kick off the R&D STEM Learning Exchange Challenge. As part of this partnership, we are encouraging Chicago Public Schools students to perform original student-driven research and development. Students are applying STEM concepts to real-world problems over the course of a semester while networking with field professionals like Josh.

This year’s STEM Learning Exchange Challenge tackles an issue Chicago has been working hard to solve for years: Urban flooding. Nationwide, we deal with droughts, floods, storm and sewage damage, and water availability and quality. Chicago deals with flooding increasingly more frequently, as climate change has altered the dynamics of storms in ways that our water management system (built in the decades prior to our knowledge of climate change) wasn’t meant to handle.

Urban flooding is costly. These floods lead to property loss, increases in mosquito populations, pathogenic diseases, increases in pollution from urban runoff, and more.  It is something that has had to be dealt with in particularly hard-struck neighborhoods.

Josh posited to the students that Chicago’s water issues can be measured, and subsequently solved, using a combination of sensors, data, green infrastructure, and the built environment.   We laid this challenge out specifically to high-school students because they are the near-future researchers. They are the men and women who will not only come up with better uses for sensors and data for water management, but will create more environmentally- and cost-friendly solutions for the world’s water supply.. And it starts with the skills they’ve learned in their STEM education.

Back to the discussion with the students. First, the students needed to understand what jobs and professions address such problems. Josh described exactly what is “engineering” and what is an “engineer” does. This helped the students map the challenge and the skills they will develop with a career path.

Next, he framed the field of water management simply: how water moves around, how you manage it, and coming up with new and different ways to do it more efficiently and at lower costs,. Now the students were engaged in something they could get their heads around.

Then, he helped them connect the applied science of water management to the disciplines that they are learning today in school (geometry, physics, biology art, etc.). So at this point, the students had a frame of reference of how they can use the skills they are amassing currently. But he also appealed to a good segment of the audience who was motivated by being part of the improvement of society and their city. He equally appealed to those who want to leverage their intelligence and creativity, and to build the knowledge, skills, and abilities that they will need to participate in the near future economy.

He wrapped it up by capturing their (ok, my) imaginations. He blended his research in robotics around fascinating use cases that included disaster response and recovery, agriculture, and…yes…water.

Chicago’s students will be working on the STEM Learning Exchange Challenge through May 2015, when we’ll celebrate all our students’ achievements and highlight the good work they’ve done to improving our infrastructure. Stay tuned for updates from local schools on STEM Learning Exchange Challenge-related innovation.

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Adam J. Hecktman
Adam J. Hecktman

You may recognize Adam. He’s a regular on TV, you can hear him on the radio, he’s penned numerous articles and is the co-founder of the Chicago City Data Users Group. But some of Adam’s most important work is done behind the scenes in his role as Microsoft’s Director of Technology and Civic Engagement for Chicago. Tech giants, universities and government leaders turn to Adam for guidance on all matters technology, and he happily obliges, helping Chicago overcome challenges and capitalizing on new, exciting opportunities.