Sky’s the limit at Matteson STEM Center

By Kevin Beese Staff writer

Gov. J.B. Pritzker checks out the work of students in the Matteson Elementary School District 159 STEM Center on Thursday, Aug. 31 as they created self-driving vehicles for use on the moon. (Photo by Kevin Beese/Chronicle Media)

State Rep. Debbie Meyers-Martin, D-Olympia Fields, had a flashback as she watched second-graders work with Legos in the Matteson Elementary School District 159 STEM Center.

“I remembered my daughter always asked for Legos for Christmas. She now is a mechanical engineer,” Meyers-Martin said. “So, truly, we are on the right track to uplift our students and make them competitive in the global society.”

Gov. J.B. Pritzker and Tony Sanders, state superintendent of education, joined Meyers-Martin on Thursday, Aug. 31 in checking out District 159’s new Science, Technology, Engineering and Math Center. The first of its kind in the region, the south suburban district’s STEM Center’s maker spaces offer students opportunities to learn electronics, 3D printing, computer coding, robotics and woodworking.

District 159 serves 1,661 students from Matteson, Richton Park and Tinley Park in kindergarten through grade 8. The district’s population is predominantly Black and Hispanic. The district’s STEM Center, which opened in November, aims to bridge the gap in access to hands-on STEM programming for students of color and give them a boost into high-paying, in-demand STEM careers.

Fourth-graders Kayleigh Mendoza (left) and Aalayah Watkins work on calculations for their self-driving vehicle. (Photo by Kevin Beese/Chronicle Media)

“What they’re learning here has real world applications and gets them excited about the future,” Pritzker said.

The governor said after talking with some of the School District’s board members it was clear to him that the students are in good hands.

“This is a community that has people who really cares about education and are engaged in this,” Pritzker said. “It’s not easy, I know, to be on a School Board for anyone, especially over the last few years. I can just say that having people who care deeply about the children of the community and building something great for them is vital.”

Melodye Williams had a chance to speak with Pritzker as he entered a room where fourth-graders were creating self-driving vehicles to use on the moon.
“It was really good,” Williams said about their brief conversation. “It was fine; it was fun. I liked explaining ideas to him. I hope to learn more and hope he can learn more about what we’re doing.”

Fourth-graders (from left) Isac Guerrero, Aalayah Watkins and Kayleigh Mendoza watch as their self-driving vehicle heads down a table in the District 159 STEM Center. With the students is Kiara Clay (center), the district’s STEM instruction coach. (Photo by Kevin Beese/Chronicle Media)

Kiara Clay, STEM instruction coach for the district, wants to make sure that students in the district know that there are jobs in science, technology, engineering and math fields.

“Growing up, I didn’t know these opportunities were available to me,” Clay said. “To make what they’re learning in school connect to real life and make it come alive for them is so important.

“STEM is a part of our everyday life. It’s part of what we do every day, whether you’re making recipes, whether you’re building pinatas, whether you’re doing arts and crafts or building Legos, it’s a part of so many careers these days.”

Clay said she learned the most whenever subjects were engaging and hands-on.

“When students can code drones, connect magnet circuits and learn that circuits are a part of our everyday life and that is how we get electricity, it makes these abstract ideas come to life.”

Pritzker said the state must find more money to boost STEM education in every district.

“We will have to increase STEM funding, honestly. There is an overall challenge in Illinois of making sure we get dollars especially to districts that don’t have a tax base that can support schools locally. That is why property taxes are so high in many places.” Pritzker said. “The state needs to step in so we can lower property taxes and fund STEM education and education more broadly. Are more resources necessary? Yes, they are.”