This summer, on May 7th, over 300 students from Chicago’s south and west sides met virtually to participate in Project SYNCERE’s fourth annual ENpowered Games—an event during which students used their knowledge of engineering and science to solve a variety of challenges people encounter every day. The theme for this year’s event, “Engineering Social Change,” was as timely as it was pregnant with possibilities. As part of the celebratory culmination of a 10-week program in engineering design, critical thinking and collaboration skills, participants created projects designed to offer engineering solutions that impact real social change. The project entries ranged from concepts for eradicating homelessness to developing ways to provide equitable access to healthcare.
Project SYNCERE (Supporting Youth’s Needs with Core Engineering Research Experiments) is a Chicago are non-profit organization whose mission is to prepare the minds of underrepresented students and create pathways for them to pursue careers in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math). The project was founded in 2009 by Jason Coleman, George Wilson and Seun Phillips—three African American men who witnessed first-hand the lack of ethnic diversity in their fields of engineering. Their solution was to begin Project SYNCERE, which has now served over 24,000 Chicago students since its inception.
As robust an initiative as it is, ENpowered Games is just one of the many programs and events Project SYNCERE organizes each year. In addition to the 10-week session that leads up to this competition, Project SYNCERE offers a variety of in-school and after school classes, Saturday sessions and summer family workshops for students ranging from kindergarten through 12th grade. Young people participate in innovative, hands-on curriculum during all of project SYNCERE’s experiences, and all programs are designed to increase students’ interest and understanding of STEM while setting them firmly on a pathway for future success in the fields.
“The ENpowered Games Competition shows Black and Brown students they can exceed in the STEM fields and provides them with a vehicle to jump-start their journey in these disciplines,” said Jason Coleman, executive director and co-founder of Project SYNCERE. “We want our inner-city youth to know they can not only compete, but excel in STEM fields, and this gives them the opportunity and confidence to do so.”
This year’s experience was especially exciting because the 2020 competition had to be canceled–and the 10-weeks of instruction halted–due to COVID-19 lockdowns that impacted Chicago and the rest of the country. Fortunately, the 2021 experience was a success even if it did feel a bit different from competitions in years past. The first ENpowered Games were large, in-person events filled with students, instructors, mentors and the kind of excitement some kids reserve for comic book conventions and summer blockbuster movie openings.
“We’ve been fortunate enough to create arenas for our students to compete in years past at Wintrust Stadium and the Museum of Science and Industry,” said Coleman. “Despite all of us having to adapt this year, we are thankful to our sponsors who have allowed us to create a virtual arena to ensure the competition continues and our future STEM leaders remain engaged and focused on using their skills and talents to better their communities.”
Project SYNCERE spokesperson, Glenn Harston, II added that the overall experience leading into the games was a bit different, too, “This year, instructors from our staff and volunteers interacted with students remotely, as they logged in from school or home depending on the site. Additionally, this year the final project was a pre-recorded presentation of a digital prototype. In years past, students would present in person and build a physical model of their design for judges to review.”
Because of the abrupt halt to 2020’s experience, Project SYNCERE adjusted the process for how schools and students were selected to participate in the 2021 ENpowered Games.
“Typically, schools apply for the competition and select a class of middle school students to participate,” says Harston. “This year however, due to the competition being cancelled last year, the 22 schools from last year were given the opportunity to participate…8 schools opted to participate in what would now be a virtual competition. The last two schools were selected as part of a grant from the US Department of Education.”
With the slate of competitors in place, students worked with Project SYNCERE staff, who led them through a series of mini-design challenges in TinkerCAD, a 3D Design software, to strengthen their critical thinking skills while preparing them for the competition. Students built a foundation of practical knowledge that then allowed them to start considering just how engineering concepts could be used to solve social challenges. Technical know-how, empirical knowledge, collaborative skills and ingenuity were all vital parts of the process.
After such a challenging year, Project SYNCERE’s leaders felt that 2021’s ENpowered Games were an opportunity to ensure every community’s voice was heard. ENpowered students were encouraged to think of engineering and innovation as means to give voice to community challenges that were important to them. During the games, students presented projects that were conceived in response to a societal need.
While there were many creative projects responding to a variety of different community needs, from combating body-shaming to addressing racism, the winner of this year’s ENpowered Games created a solution to a very timely problem—finding a better way to distribute COVID-19 personal protective equipment to those who need it most. Students Jayleen Webb, Jerrion Johnson, Torrionna Holmes, and Marquel Carpenter from Charles Sumner Math and Science Community Academy collaborated to create a PPE Supply Distribution Box to help make sure PPE was available equitably, safely and with minimal environmental impact.
In addition to the individual project winner, the ENpowered Games also presented awards to participating schools based on the social change projects submitted from that school, in addition to how well that school did on two additional design challenges and a class quiz. Winning schools were: Robert L. Grimes Elementary (First Place); Mariano Azuela Elementary (Second Place); Shoop Academy of Math, Science, and Technology (Third Place).In the wake of the success of the ENpowered Games, registration for Project SYNCERE’s summer programming is already underway. Once again, programs will be offered online, and a variety of opportunities are available for students from kindergarten through high school. For additional information about summer and fall programs as well as next year’s ENvision Games, visit Project SYNCERE online at projectsyncere.org.