Inspiring students to pursue science, fight climate change and impact the community

Here Can Goes a Secondary Title For This Article To Highlight Something Particular To Engage The Readers

By Brittany Edelmann and Carly Menker, Photos by Carly Menker, May 1, 2022 – 

Janyiah, a ninth-grade student at Gary Comer College Prep, started “falling in love with science” three years ago in the South Side school’s proactive STEM curriculum. She enjoyed the mix of her two favorite subjects: math and reading. Janyiah, in the Comer middle school at the time, is now a freshman at Comer Prep in Jessica Stevens’ environmental science class. Janyiah said she and her classmates transmitted electricity to a light bulb, and “it was so cool.”

Skylan, also a ninth grader at Gary Comer College Prep, is finding her passion through Steven’s class as well. “I want to be a wildlife conservationist,” Skylen said. She said she noticed how Stevens is an environmental scientist and seeing what she does and how she goes out into the field really helped her decide what she wants to do.

At the age of 14, Sanaa was a Green Teen at the Gary Comer Youth Center when she was “working as a small little agricultural farmer,” and started learning about growing food and environmental science. Then she graduated and became a part of the Comer Crops Program. She loves seeing the growth, seeing food that she planted and seeing Maine in the summer to give more students the chance to experience this type of work and provide further inspiration and confidence to pursue a career in science.

Scientists come to speak with current students often. Stevens said students tell her how much they love talking to a “real scientist,” which shows them the researchers aren’t as “boring” as they originally thought.

Students in the middle and prep school and members of the youth center, all on the Comer Education Campus at 7200 S. Ingleside Ave., where the focus is on impacting their communities and beyond through hands-on, interactive learning related to science.

The underlying hope of founder  Gary Comer had in regard to the program was about “how young people could learn here and then go out in the world and make a difference,” Marji Hess, previous urban agricultural director  at GCCP, said at the 2021 annual Comer Climate Conference. The conference brings together top scientists from around the world to discuss their research that documents climate change and urgent solutions. Hess now leads a new Comer Family Foundation initiative empowering youth to address the climate crisis.

Students at the prep school (GCCP) have had opportunities to travel to Mongolia on field trips with scientists, experiential learning they took back into the classroom to inspire other students. Hess also said GCCP students have  traveled with her to Yellowstone National Park for a week and “every single one of them said it changed their lives in a way that they never expected.”

Patricia Joyner was one of those students. She went to Yellowstone three years in a row and  she’s now an undergraduate studying with Aaron Putnam, an assistant professor of Earth sciences with the University of Maine’s Climate Change Institute and a scientist affiliated with Comer climate research initiative. Another initiative they hope to implement is to take current GCCP students to Maine in the summer to give more students the chance to experience this type of work and provide further inspiration and confidence to pursue a career in science.

Stevens implements “culturally relevant and hands-on,” learning with the goal that her students “become scientifically literate adults and hopefully climate leaders.” Stevens is also working on piloting a student-centered climate change unit for the first time this year, which will include things like the topic of heat islands but specific to Chicago.

She received a grant to purchase handheld air quality sensors so her students can do a long-term investigation into air quality around the school. They hope to compare different areas around the school and how air quality affects human health. “Most of our students are in those zones and are in the communities that experienced the worst of environmental effects due to redlining,” so this experiment is especially impactful, Stevens said.

A day in the life of her classroom offers experiences her students say they cherish and enjoy.

On a typical day, Stevens teaches science at Gary Comer College Prep in Classroom 109. Decorated with posters promoting safety and respect, she works hard to instill lessons like these while teaching her students to be passionate about science. Science did take a bit of a temporary back-burner role after the school returned to in-person class from remote learning during the pandemic. There was “a lot of social emotional learning,” said Stevens. It’s “important that they know how to be a social human being again in a classroom.”


Stevens’ class is working on building a model power grid as part of their Resources and Consumption unit. Her teaching approach involves a lot of hands-on learning as well as demonstrations. To start, she asks students, “How are you feeling today?” She asks for a thumbs up for a color such as yellow or green, which can indicate emotions such as pleasant or blessed. She then engages students by asking them critical questions they answer to build familiarity with the topic. She makes it clear to students that “science isn’t about being right, it’s about figuring things out.”


Stevens emphasized the fundamentals of scientific learning focuses on the scientific method. It’s a process of acquiring knowledge that incorporates careful observation, skepticism  and assumptions based on interpretation of observations along with documentation of methods and data that can be repeated by others.  When it comes to science, student Elicia said she loves how “you can learn new things about the whole world and earth and nature.”


As class continues, Stevens explains the importance of different types of energy, asking students questions about it as she goes along. She elaborates on how friction is a type of kinetic energy that converts into thermal energy. With 24 kids in a class, keeping everyone focused is a priority for Stevens along with students them remaining clear on the content. “It’s really important to me that my students understand the ‘why’ behind what we’re learning,” she said.


Students are intensely focused in Stevens’ class as eager participation shows. Their engagement with the content reflects results in the caliber of their hard work as well as in their growth and love for science. When she asks a question, multiple hands raise to answer. She says she’s not the student’s favorite the first half of the year – the class is tough. But by the second half of the year, the students come around and they get used to her teaching and grow to love it. Steven says while she has “very high expectations,” she knows just how capable they are.


When working on a unit in class, the lesson plans are designed to go through the topic in a way that is accessible and tangible to students. Typically, they encompass a basic scientific question, covering all aspects of it as Stevens leads the class through it. “We like to have a lot more hands- on, involved story lines,” she said. “Meaning that [students] actually investigate the entire problem, from start to finish.”


One example of Stevens’ hands-on learning is finding the answer to the question: “How does steam generate electricity?” Stevens took her class through a demonstration of this and visually showed them in a session how this occurs. Another example of a lab of hers included the history of the electricity lab, which was equally as interactive. Jordyn, one of Steven’s students, said what he likes about science is seeing the experiments and “the cool stuff.”


There are no textbooks in Stevens’ classes. Instead, she’s adopted a more student-involved method: the Interactive Science Notebook that each student makes. “Environmental science is always changing,” she said. The textbooks wouldn’t be able to give the same enrichment and learning that Stevens’ handout and lesson packets can. Stevens also says cutting out pages and contributing other resources, creating the notebook, can give their mind’s a break and be calming and therapeutic for students too.


This year, Stevens and Hess worked together with Alice Doughty, a professor at the University of Maine, to create a climate change unit based on the Next Generation Science Standards and Problem Based Learning. Not only did they want to bolster the breadth of their science program, but they also wanted to focus on “building a better curriculum using the next generation’s standards, which are the federal standards that all students would be using throughout the country.” In doing so, this would improve the futures of all the Gary Comer Prep students. “We’re switching to that to give our students more equitable opportunities and background and support before they go off to higher education,” Stevens said.


To make their Interactive Science Notebooks, there is a lot of cutting, pasting and handouts involved. These notebooks serve as a reference for students throughout their learning process where Stevens focuses on skill-based grading, “to watch how students’ progress and see if they’re going to be supported in their next level of classes.”


This class demonstration showed a direct application of changing potential energy to kinetic and thermal energy to steam and sound energy. Before starting, water waits to boil on a hot plate as the first step. Stevens asked students, “What will happen? What type of energy?” “Nuclear?” one student asked. “Maybe see steam?” students replied. Even when students become frustrated at times with science terminology, Stevens reminds them, “Terminology is hard. That’s a part of science.”


To make sure that every student feels engaged in the lesson and can see, Stevens walks around with parts of the demonstration bringing it around to them. Stevens and Hess focus on supporting their students in any way they can, especially through their scientific learning. “We’re trying to help our young people build resiliency and leadership skills,” Hess said.


Students take vigorous notes as Stevens continues to explain the background to her energy demonstration. A crucial part of the learning is the student engagement that Stevens facilitates by sparking discussion about the topic that the class is focusing on while sprinkling in content questions to get students thinking. “I love the discussions we have in this classroom,” student Kimiyrah said.


By lighting a flame inside a mini steam engine, Stevens can generate enough heat to make the wheel turn on the engine. When she opens the top, a whistling sound is made, reflecting the energy that is converted to sound. Each student watches Stevens with a razor-sharp focus. “They bring so much background knowledge to my class and I love finding ways to incorporate their existing knowledge and experiences into Environmental Science,” she said.


All eyes are on the demonstration as students investigate the outcome of the energy changes in the experiment. One way Stevens gets her students so engaged is by bringing the meaning of the lesson to experiences that matter in their lives. “Right now, we’re learning about how we generate electricity and transfer it to power our homes,” she said. “I framed this as ‘How do you charge your phone?’ They were really into the lessons after that.”


Emphasizing the values Stevens instills in her students, they help clean up out of respect on their way out of the classroom. Instead of rushing out, many linger to chat with Stevens, a connection to the quality of teaching she gives to her students. “This is my favorite class,” said Janyiah (not shown here). “She’s my favorite teacher,” she added. “I knew there was a reason I woke up this morning,” Stevens said.

(Note: For reasons of privacy and safety, students are identified by first name only.)

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