Why Chicago Summer of Learning is a B.F.D.

(that’s Big FANTASTIC Deal, for those who assumed I was a potty mouth!)

Chicago Summer of Learning is a joint endeavor led by the City of Chicago Mayor’s Office, the MacArthur Foundation, and the Mozilla Foundation, with the help of over 100 youth-serving organizations in the country’s 3rd largest city.

Chicago Summer Of Learning Logo

“CSOL”, as it is affectionately called by my Hive Chicago Learning Network buddies and me, is designed to help Chicago’s youth take advantage of the diverse array of learning opportunities available to them this summer and to make sure that their “learning counts” by acknowledging each young person’s achievements using digital badges (see this video if you are new to the concept) 


CSOL is a big, fantastic idea that is being implemented at an ambitious scale.  And, it is critically important for Chicago’s youth.  Taking a closer look at STEAM|Studio, a Hive Chicago-funded CSOL Challenge, will help me explain why.

STEAM|Studio is engaging a group of young people (right now) in the complex tasks of designing a STEAM-inspired fashion line and documenting the design and production processes.  The “STEAM Team” is comprised of apprentice fashion designers, jewelry designers, bloggers, and photographers.  These 8th – 12th graders have “leveled up” within CSOL and “unlocked” this particular challenge, which will culminate in a youth-produced, mutli-media runway show and the professional manufacturing of the best fashion and jewelry designs.

STEAM | Studio exemplifies exactly why Chicago Summer of Learning matters so much.

Schools Can’t Do It Alone

Schools are faced with the reality that they must play a number of roles (with and often for parents) in the lives of young people if they are to succeed academically – educator, advisor, enricher, accelerator, mentor, and even caretaker and protector. These roles, particularly in our urban schools, are enacted against the backdrop of high-stakes testing, district- and school-level instability, and the general under-funding of public education. Schools can not do the work of nourishing the next generation of leaders and innovators alone – nor should they. Our communities are teeming with untapped resources – after school programs with empty slots, civic institutions with treasures to share, and caring adults with talents, heart, and time.

At STEAM | Studio, our young designers, photogs, and bloggers are being mentored closely by professionals who excel in the specific areas about which our kids are passionate. “Real life” boutique owners, jewelry designers, photographers, fashion designers, and media-makers are listening to our young STEAM|Studio apprentices’ ideas, providing feedback on their concepts and sketches, helping them prototype their designs, and pushing their thinking about their own work as they iterate.  And it’s all taking place in a spacious pop-up studio provided by Chicago’s Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events (and later in space offered by DePaul University).  These are robust, production-oriented experiences that schools and parents would find challenging to provide.  CSOL has facilitated the mining of these unique human and capital resources in the service of young people’s interest-driven learning pursuits.

Photography Mentoring at STEAM | Studio

Digital Youth Network mentor, Brother Mike, talks cameras with STEAM|Studio Photogs and Chuck from Chicago Art Department.

STEAM | Studio Jewelry Design Mentoring

FUSE mentor, Henry, helps STEAM|Studio Jewelry Designer iterate with SketchUp.

Sir & Madame STEAM | Studio Mentoring

Sir & Madame mentor, Bryan, gives feedback on a STEAM|Studio Designer’s sketch and prototype.

STEAM Studio Jewelry Design Mentoring

Christopher Duquet Fine Jewelry mentor, Terran, examines the prototype that a STEAM|Studio Jewelry Designer made the day before.

Young People Need “Possible Selves” Spaces

“Possible selves” are our ideas about who we would like to be and who we might become, as well as who we are afraid of becoming.  As you can imagine, these “self” concepts can be quite salient and powerful, particularly for young people.  Their ideas about who they are and could be are influenced by context – what they see, experience, and interpret around them.  Research has indicated that these beliefs can operate like self-fulfilling prophecies, because they influence the choices that students make.  For example, decades ago, Roslyn Mickelson found that students who, in their personal experiences, did not see education “paying off” were more likely to have poor grades, despite their positive attitudes about education.  And more recently, Daphna Oyserman, Deborah Bybee, and Kathy Terry, from the University of Michigan, demonstrated that when students’ academically-based possible (and feared) selves were activated and they were supported in developing strategies for striving, they made more achievement-focused choices (attending school, behaving, participating, studying, etc.) than students without such intervention.

Unfortunately, too often our young people live in contexts that communicate limited possibilities – neighborhoods reflecting the effects of blight and unemployment, schools focused on student deficits and “failing” test scores, families struggling to make it in the present to the neglect of focusing on the future.  Our youth need spaces like STEAM|Studio, where they not only imagine, but see multiple possible futures … as a fashion designer, an entrepreneur, a jewelry designer, a journalist.  These spaces are unfettered by standards and rank.  The kid who struggles in algebra can still use CAD to design; and then might have a reason to work harder in math back at school.  The kid who takes hours to put pen to paper can find expression through photography; and then might be inspired to find the words to explain the inspiration behind the image.  The kid who never makes the Honor Roll can be recognized as making a meaningful contribution; and then discover authentic reasons to feel proud and accomplished.  CSOL is helping Chicago youth find and connect in these “third spaces” where many selves become possible and mentors exemplify and share the pathways to actualizing them.

Exit Slips in response to "How Do You Feel about What You Did Today?"

Exit Slips in response to “How Do You Feel about What You Did Today?”

More exit slips.

More exit slips.

Global Girl Media interviews STEAM|Studio Designer

GlobalGirl Media interviews STEAM|Studio Designer.

Learning Should be Connected Across Spaces

Too often today, the rich and meaningful learning experiences that young people have across spaces – in schools, out of schools, at home, and online – are fragmented and disconnected.  Youth might navigate these spaces with peers, but largely are left on their own to make sense of, stitch together, and integrate what they are making, doing, and learning in the various spheres of their lives. They also usually carry the burden of finding the next opportunity to extend their engagement in things that they like, and have begun to love to do.  Furthermore, the adults in these young people’s lives often are unaware of the skills and competencies that they are building and the possible selves that they are trying on, embracing, nurturing, and developing.  Connected Learning seeks to address the fragmentation of youth learning, using old and new technologies to both a) make visible the making and doing that youth engage in across spaces and b) provide avenues for adults across spaces to, together, support young people in discovering their interests and deepening their passions.

Many different roads led our STEAM|Studio youth to our unique pop-up maker space. Several of them heard about it through their mentors from other programs.  Others came with a program to check out our drop-in maker space and came back to work with us. Some just happened to walk by and walk in.  One of our designers found us through his teacher, Stephanie, who learned about Chicago Summer of Learning, heard the details of STEAM|Studio, and immediately thought of her student – “All he talked about, all year long, was about being a designer!”  She called him up, he joined us on the first day, and has been soaking up all that the space is offering – the lessons on the design process, the use of digital tools to create mood boards, getting feedback on sketches, learning how to use SketchUp to prototype, and engaging in the process of iteration and refinement.  When he earns the STEAM|Studio Designer badge, it will represent the complex set of skills and knowledge that he has acquired and indicate the sophisticated tools he has used. This CSOL badge provides a digital footprint that can link his learning between STEAM|Studio and school, helping caring adults support his learning and helping him craft a pathway of learning organized around an evolving and emerging set of competencies and identities. And one day, that badge might also “count” and be converted into credit or service hours.

STEAM|Studio Design Start

STEAM|Studio notes on starting the design process.

STEAM|Studio Maker Bot

STEAM|Studio Designer watches prototype being printed on the MakerBot.

STEAM|Studio Designer Badge

The earner of this badge demonstrated knowledge of the design process, moving from brainstorming through production and engaging in multiple iterations in response to feedback. As the learner engaged in design, s/he used spatial reasoning, transferred 2D images to 3D designs, and applied geometry knowledge in the use of computer-aided design software.

The Chicago Summer of Learning has the potential to change the learning landscape for Chicago’s youth.  It galvanizes the numerous resources available in the city; provides youth with spaces designed to uncover, tap into, and fuel their interests; and uses digital badges as a mechanism for connecting, communicating, and “counting” young people’s learning across those spaces.  The adults involved are learning a lot this summer about the level of collaboration and coordination it takes to do this important work well – we should all earn badges ourselves!

I look forward to seeing how our STEAM|Studio designers and media-makers forge pathways forward after the summer is over, as they return to school, apply and transfer these new skills and knowledge, and explore multiple possible selves.  It’s a big deal.

STEAM|Studio Fashion Design

STEAM|Studio Designer proudly displays her t-shirt concept.



  1. I think it would be great if this type of learning were taking place at all of the non-school tutor/mentor programs in the city, including those already on the list of organizations involved. I host a Tutor/Mentor Leadership and Networking Conference in Chicago every six months (since 1994) and the next is Monday, Nov. 4. I hope a group from the HIVE will host a workshop and show more programs how they might engage their youth in this type of learning on an on-going basis. The conference web site is http://www.tutormentorconference.org

    I’ve also been working with interns from various colleges who create strategy visualizations such as you can see at http://www.tutormentorexchange.net/definition-of-issues/ideasanimation . Youth who are creating visualizations could begin to show work youth organizations are doing with a goal of attracting volunteers and donors to provide continuous support to those organizations.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s