When Lake View High School junior Ophelia Rosales was tasked with improving her community with a chatbot, or a computer program that conducts a conversation (like Siri or Cortana), she and her small group of classmates decided they wanted to provide resources for undocumented immigrants.
Senior Destiny Buelvas envisions a one-stop app with any information on the school students might need, including missed homework assignments, counseling resources, college prep and more.
Junior Lirio Romero’s group wants to focus on mental health support for students.
About 60 Lake View students in Jessin Simon’s physics and Joanne S. Yonan’s forensics classes are participating in the Illinois Science and Technology Institute’s annual STEM Challenge.
The STEM Challenge pairs industry professionals up with high school students all across Illinois to work on solving a problem the students see in one of their communities, like their school, city, racial or ethnic community, etc. This year, 45 schools will participate in the challenge with 16 industry partners.
This is the third year the institute has paired Lake View High School students up with Microsoft employees.
A kick-off event took place Wednesday, where students were introduced to the chatbot challenge and tasked with choosing what their chatbot will do and for whom.
As they develop their project, they’ll check in weekly with their Microsoft mentors via an online tool, they’ll visit Microsoft to meet with their mentors and get a tour, and there will be two or three mentor engagements in their classrooms.
On April 26, one group from each participating school will present their project back to mentors from every company at a statewide showcase.
Larry Kuhn, an account technology strategist at Microsoft and a mentor in the STEM Challenge at Lake View High School for the third year, said this project aims to show teenagers that working in a STEM field can mean more than they might think.
“Each member of the team can focus on an area that is more of interest to them,” Kuhn said. “You wind up having someone who works on the script, or the person who works on the design of the product, or the person who works on the presentation, and there’s usually a project manager. It gives the kids the chance to experience that role and try it on in a safe environment.”
But the STEM Challenge isn’t just good for the students — it also benefits Microsoft.
“The longer-term benefit is that we’re really trying to recruit people into a career that’s related to all of the job leads Microsoft has,” Kuhn said. “We need marketing people, we need project managers, we need sales people, we need artists, we need coders. A lot of people think of that last one, but they don’t necessarily think of all the others.”
It’s that stigma surrounding STEM — that it only applies to hard sciences and intimidating skills like coding — that led to some Lake View High School students feeling wary about participating in the challenge when they first heard about it from their teachers.
“I was thinking, ‘Oh my god, I have to learn how to program, I have to learn how to make an actual robot,’” said junior Lirio Romero. “And I felt dumb because I wasn’t in the other IT classes. I’m a lot more confident now.”
Junior Ophelia Rosales felt similarly at first.
“I was kind of nervous because the STEM classes here aren’t for me; it’s not something I’m interested in,” Rosales said. “But then I started really finding out what this is about, and I thought it was really interesting. We’re just throwing a lot of ideas out there and really being open to things. I think it’s really cool that we get to choose what we want to do.”
Kuhn, who volunteers his time along with the other mentors in the program, said interacting with bright young minds is what keeps him coming back year after year.
“It’s very energizing, and it’s fulfilling to see how they grow as individuals over the course of the year,” he said. “They always start off somewhat intimidated, meek, quiet, and then their confidence builds. It’s a lot of fun at the end when they get to give their final presentation and see how much confidence they have in the power of their idea.”