WITS & University of Chicago STEM – Full-Day Early Childhood Summer Programming

By Eric Coleman, Communications Manager

Students build a birdhouse in the Ready, Set, STEM program at Talcott Fine Arts & Museum Academy.

The Early Childhood Summer Program (ECSP) provides free literacy programming designed to help students develop the early literacy skills needed to be ready for kindergarten. This year, WITS partnered with the University of Chicago to offer full-day pre-kindergarten summer programming at De Diego Elementary School, McAuliffe Elementary School, and Talcott Fine Arts and Museum Academy. The Ready, Set, STEM program, made possible by a grant from Boeing, engages students through inquiry-based learning focused on math and science concepts.

Over five weeks, students began their day by practicing early literacy concepts, such as letter and sound recognition, phonemic awareness, and rhyming. Structured around exploring fairy tales, WITS ECSP helps students develop a love of reading through class read alouds, creative activities, and one-on-one reading with volunteer mentors. Following a break for lunch and recess, students returned for the Ready, Set, STEM program. Students started each Ready, Set, STEM session by participating in counting games, led by the Lead Teacher, to build their vocabulary and comprehension of STEM topics. Students spent the next portion of program working through centers to apply what they had learned, and completing activities, such as building and testing structures, planting bulbs and measuring growth, assembling bird houses, or using math operations to write stories. Students finished each session with a review of the material covered that day.

Students and teachers discuss what they learned about birds and make a graphic organizer.

A highlight of the program at Talcott for both Lead Teacher, Rosalba Granados, and Assistant Teacher, Megan Fair, was the class’ study of buildings and structures, which coincided with WITS ECSP’s week of activities focused on The Three Little Pigs and the Big Bad Wolf. The unit began with the class leaving school to explore their neighborhood and examining nearby buildings. During this activity, the class ran into an artist and a construction worker, which gave students the opportunity to ask local experts questions to further their understanding of building and crafting materials. The class then discussed the aspects of strong structures, determined testing criteria (“Could the building withstand being blown over?” “Could the building support the weight of a book?” Etc.), and then designed their own buildings out of recycled materials. “It was so awesome to see the students build, test, and re-design [their buildings],” said Megan Fair. “When we finally said, ‘time’s up,’ all of their structures met the criteria.”

Ms. Granados also appreciated that the full-day pre-k program gave students the opportunity to practice the flow of a kindergarten day in a more informal camp setting. She observed that, “the length of the day fits well with the students’ energy. Even when they are playing, they are building connections to the content we are teaching.” The relationships developed throughout the program will benefit Ms. Granados this fall when many of the students who participated in the summer program return to her classroom as kindergarteners.

Students drawings of plants with descriptions of what they observed.

“If we can teach [students] to have sustained attention around a topic, it is bigger than any [specific] content we can teach them,” said Liesje Spaepen of the University of Chicago Ready, Set, STEM Team. Recognizing the importance of early math skills as a predictor of academic achievement, Liesje and her team designed the Ready, Set, STEM curriculum to help “students to feel like they are engineers, scientists, mathematicians, and enter kindergarten with that attitude.”

Now that the pre-k summer programs have concluded, WITS and University of Chicago Ready, Set, STEM are looking forward to continued engagement with students throughout their kindergarten school year. WITS will offer the WITS Kindergarten program, which leverages community volunteers to provide consistent weekly mentorship and one-on-one reading support for kindergarten students. University of Chicago will provide materials and projects for kindergarten classrooms and host a series of family engagement nights to extend STEM learning beyond the classroom. After a positive first year of joint programming, WITS and University of Chicago Ready, Set, STEM look forward to a continued partnership for years to come.