Kenwood Academy students met with U.S. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm earlier this month, a visit prompted by how many of its students are involved with Argonne National Laboratory's programming for local high schoolers.
Karen Calloway began working with Argonne when she became the Kenwood principal five years ago.
"We have been trying to reinstitute our STEM programs," she said. "One of the students came back from Morehouse College, and he told me, 'Ms. Calloway, I feel like I had a really good preparation for college, but my advice would be to provide more coding opportunities for students.'"
The school has sought to build partnerships with area universities like the Illinois Institute of Technology DevUp program, which connects South Side high schoolers with STEM entrepreneurs as mentors over three years, and STEM education nonprofit Project Lead the Way.
She sensed an opportunity when Argonne opened its office in Harper Court. Kenwood is now getting information about Argonne programming for its students every month; more than 40 students have applied for the programming, like a computer science camp the lab hosted over the summer.
For Ava Peek, that meant building a battery-powered autonomous vehicle in the span of the week.
"It was a guided experience," she said. "We had the educational department from Argonne come up and teach us basic Python codes to put into the car. We were using our hands a lot, connecting male-to-female wires into sensors that can detect walls. It'll tell the car the move around, back up, turn, if it finds an obstacle."
Peek has always liked building things — she's interested in studying aerospace engineering someday — and she likes coding because it allows her to find problems and fix them
"Putting in the codes that I know are very fun, to see them executed," she said. "What's fun about it is getting to see the growth: you put in these codes, and it comes out in the way that you want it to, the way that you want it to work."
Skylar Spratt does Argonne's Data4All program, a partnership with the University of Chicago’s Data Science Institute and Office of Civic Engagement. They do computer science data collecting during Saturday workshops. One of their first projects was an adaptation of epidemiologist John Snow's investigation of the 1854 cholera outbreak in London, which established that contaminated water was infecting people by mapping clusters of people suffering the disease near certain pumps.
In Data4All, Spratt and other students gathered information and made the hypothesis that cholera is waterborne, not airborne.
"We basically, starting from nothing — not having knowledge about cholera, not knowing about the situation itself — found and collected data, and then analyzed that data," she said. They looked at who was being exposed to the water sources, what areas of the city people who were being infected lived in and found commonalities between the infected people.
As Snow did, they plotted cases on a map; unlike him, they made the map a 3D representation on a computer to show how many people were getting infected.
Surrey Jones, another Kenwood student in Data4All, talked about a newer project about the way COVID-19 has affected different parts of Chicago and how whether or not people have health insurance affected them during the pandemic.
"In different communities, they have different resources that others don't," Jones said. "The West Side might not have the same amount of resources that the South Side has, so there would be a lot more cases on the West Side because they don't have those resources."
Jones said Data4All has strongly affected her career interests, in terms of exposure to different kinds of engineering and the way new technologies are changing the world.
"I really didn't think that data was a big deal. I did not think it was as big as it is, so this has definitely helped me," she said. "And it's actually pretty fun exploring. It gives you a lot more knowledge as to what's happening in the world."
Spratt likes engineering's problem-solving aspect. She compared it to debate, which she has also done, in terms of coming up with different points to support a hypothesis. She's done other engineering enrichment programs before, but she liked Data4All because it gave a sense of what she could be doing for a career.
At one point interested in civil engineering, Spratt thinks she's more into computer science now, given how much she enjoyed working with data.
Granholm visited Chicagoland on Nov. 4 to tout her department's climate and clean energy investments in the national laboratories. She visited Kenwood before visiting Argonne.
"Every day I think about the moms and dads out there keeping food on the table and heat in the house. I think about our incredible workers. And I think about the future scientists, engineers and leaders — like the ones I just met at Kenwood Academy — who will inherit the world we create today," she said on Twitter after the visit.
The Department of Energy has purview over the national energy policy, including a particular emphasis on nuclear power. Jones said she and the secretary talked in particular about the way data is spectacularly important to research and energy production.
"It made me think about how everything is of great importance, especially when you work a job," Jones said. "You may think something is so small, but President Biden is literally her boss. So that's definitely important, like if you mess up anything, your whole job and future are on the line."
That made her worried, but she's glad to know the importance of an attention to detail in the field.
Spratt's happy to have been given the opportunity to participate, given the preponderance of STEM programming for high schoolers on the North Side and downtown that may be inaccessible to South and West Side students.
"Kenwood is a majority-Black school; I think it does have a lot to do with it, because a lot of people stress how Black kids aren't involved in STEM and Black people aren't involved in STEM a lot in general. But what are we doing to expose us to that?" she said. "Fortunately for me and Ava, Kenwood provides programs like that, but Kenwood isn't everywhere. Kenwood is not across Chicago"