by Joshua Perry, Northwestern-Medill class of 2023
A lot of kids are sick of logging onto Zoom by now—thanks to almost a year of online classes, the thought of staring at a computer screen has never been less appealing.
But in recent weeks, students have been getting up in the morning, getting back in front of their computers, and turning their cameras back on with excitement. And on Saturdays, no less.
These kids are participating in the Cardboard Carnival, a free four-part series of citywide challenges for District 65 students and Evanston residents in grades 4-8. The Cardboard Carnival helps kids learn about the engineering design process, strengthen their interest in STEM, and build valuable problem-solving skills—plus, have a blast while they’re at it.
The first event in the series, taking place last fall, was the 8-bit Challenge, a virtual project which introduced kids to fundamental coding concepts to create an original arcade game. The second challenge, Cardboard Carnival, encourages kids to get creative through the design and construction of a 3-D, cardboard marble adventure complete with tracks, funnels, loops, and even a programmable motorized element. The more elements they include, the more tokens they can enter for a chance to win cool prizes.
Both programs are funded by the Illinois State Library Project Next Generation Grant and made possible by a large coalition of partners, including EvanSTEM, the Evanston Public Library, Family Focus, MetaMedia, Digital Divas, Y.O.U. and the City of Evanston.
The challenges culminate with a virtual community showcase where the finished work of participating students is presented to friends and family. Kirby Callam, director of EvanSTEM, said that the goal is first and foremost to inspire and empower kids by encouraging their growth.
“This type of experience builds self-worth, identity and confidence, which are the building blocks towards capable and confident young adults,” Callam said. “Ultimately, we are hoping to stoke their hunger as they veer towards high school to take advantage of the tremendous STEM courses, clubs, and resources therein.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has been hard. Making the necessary adjustments to virtual school and losing face-to-face contact with peers have been particularly difficult challenges for kids, and it can be harder to participate and stay engaged when learning through a computer screen.
Cardboard Carnival had to make a strong pivot once the pandemic hit, and some of the challenges were altered significantly to adapt to the new normal. But the organizers of the program are more than satisfied with how things turned out. EPL Teen Librarian Tyler Works said there are even some benefits to conducting the program in a virtual space.
“I think it opens up interesting opportunities for us as well, to facilitate and accommodate more kids in our learning activities than we would have been able to do in person,” Works said.
Participation for the first two challenges exceeded expectations, according to the Library Innovation and Digital Learning Manager Renee Neumeier. The goal for the Cardboard Carnival was to reach 90 kids in Evanston, and over 150 ended up picking up a starter kit, she said. They had to reorder supplies multiple times.
The 8-bit Challenge, which wrapped up in December, was also a rousing success, according to Neumeier. It demonstrated that the virtual citywide challenges could be fun and educational for kids even in a remote environment.
“I think for me it was probably one of my proudest moments as a manager working with community partners across Evanston,” she said. “The community showcase and the response we’ve gotten in a virtual setting—it’s everything that we wanted.”
After the fully-virtual 8-bit Challenge, the Cardboard Carnival represented a chance for students to get creative with their hands by designing a custom-built cardboard construction and gaining experience in engineering and design principles, guided by an older mentor.
Yousuf, a sixth grader and a Cardboard Carnival participant, has had an interest in STEM for a long time. He’s learning a lot in the program, he said, like how to not over-tinker with his constructions and really think through the design process.
Yousuf said the process of building his marble adventure has been long and complicated, with many adjustments and improvements along the way. That’s his favorite part about working on his project: the feeling of making progress through trial and error.
“When you get it wrong and you fix it, I like that, because then it teaches you to be patient, and that you have to learn that you can’t do anything right away, and it will take some time,” he said.
There’s a variety of video tutorials uploaded by program facilitators on YouTube to help teach kids about important concepts. But the mentorship element has been their central source of support. Mentors help them troubleshoot issues in the construction and walk them through rough patches and unfamiliar areas, like the coding process.
Samantha Webster, a PhD student at Northwestern’s McCormick School of Engineering, assisted a student like Yousuf as a mentor, and she loved it. She said she didn’t have the chance to work on projects like the 8-bit Challenge or Cardboard Carnival when she was young, so bringing these opportunities to kids today is a fulfilling experience for her.
“If there was a community space that had these types of events, I would have had a lot of fun playing with all the things that they had,” Webster said. “And I still do. Like, I get to do the science experiments with the kids, and that’s always fun.”
There’s a strong focus in the program on reaching out to those underrepresented in STEM, like girls and BIPOC kids. Special mentor sessions take place specifically for participants in these groups, led by experienced mentors who share their identities.
Neumeier said that these extra support measures are part of an intentional effort to include and foster the growth of kids who might not typically be encouraged to pursue a future in STEM.
“We want youth to see themselves reflected in this as much as possible,” Neumeier said.
Cardboard Carnival does more than just prime kids for a future in STEM, though. Works said the program draws upon foundational critical thinking, designing, and problem solving skills that are valuable in virtually any field.
The expectation isn’t that every participant will be committed to a particular career or field by the end of the challenge, Works said. Instead, the program focuses on strengthening aptitudes that are universally valued and helping kids reach their fullest potential regardless of what path they choose in life.
“Even if kids aren’t going to be necessarily pursuing a career in STEM, this process, these skills, will be applicable to just about anything they do in their life,” Works said.
The program shies away from rigidly structured approaches with detailed steps and strict rules for constructions. The point is to facilitate more open-ended exploration that lets kids learn through experience and discovery.
This teaching style illustrates for many kids how inventive the world of STEM can be. Yousuf said the challenges engage his creative side and let him be original and fun with his designs.
“Like, they don’t have limits—they don’t put limits on how much cardboard you can use and all that,” Yousuf said. “The limits are, like, the sky.”
Cardboard Carnival participants will send in videos of their finished courses in action by March 8. Then, the program will conclude on March 13 with another community showcase to celebrate the creativity and hard work kids put into the final products.
Works said he is constantly surprised by the themes and inspirations that end up shaping the kids’ finished work. The best part of the whole process, he said, is watching their ideas develop, grow, and transform into something really incredible.
“It’s always fascinating, what they come up with,” Works said. “It always kind of blows my mind—it’s things I never anticipated.”