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SIUE gets $846,000 for East St. Louis digital program

The National Science Foundation has awarded Southern Illinois University Edwardsville an Innovative Technology Experiences for Students and Teachers grant, a three-year sum valued at $846,000.

“Digital East St. Louis” will offer information technologies, computing experiences and role models to underserved middle-school youth in an out-of-school setting. Through the program, students will create, design, discover, collaborate and solve problems by mapping the cultural and environmental history of their community.

The multidisciplinary effort will be led by Sharon Locke, director of the SIUE Center for STEM Research, Education and Outreach within the Graduate School; Jessica DeSpain, co-director of SIUE’s Interdisciplinary Research and Informatics Scholarship Center, and associate professor of English language and literature in the College of Arts and Sciences; and Liza Cummings, assistant professor of curriculum and instruction in the School of Education, Health and Human Behavior. Also from the College of Arts and Sciences, Howard Rambsy, associate professor of English language and literature, and Jeffrey Manuel, assistant professor of historical studies, will participate as faculty experts.

“We are doing some pioneering work at this so-called intersection of STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) and the humanities,” said Locke. “The National Endowment for the Humanities, the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Science Foundation recently agreed to work together to promote interdisciplinary research.
“It’s my understanding that SIUE is one of the first, if not the first, to use digital humanities as the hook to attract interest in computing and IT. Given that East St. Louis has such a rich cultural history, this is a natural place to conduct the study. Also, it should be clear that this is a research project that will examine changes in the students’ interests, attitudes and skills.”

The White House has identified three overarching priorities for STEM education for the U.S. through the “Educate to Innovate” initiative. They are to increase STEM literacy, so that all students can learn deeply and think critically in STEM; move American students from the middle of the pack to the top during the next decade; and expand STEM education and career opportunities for underrepresented groups, including women and girls.”

“In order to assist in making these priorities a reality, communities and schools must establish effective structures that support all students in STEM education,” Cummings said.

“Digital East St. Louis is a partnership among universities, schools, and community organizations that can assist in this effort.

“The program will use the emerging information technologies and techniques of digital humanities to generate motivation and interest in IT, computing and STEM-related areas for minority middle-grade students.

“They will construct knowledge with other community members and with the guidance of scientists, mathematicians, historians, urban scholars and teachers, ultimately creating a rich digital resource that will be a valuable tool for educators and scholars.”

Using the core concepts of the digital humanities as a guiding principle, student participants will be building an interactive map, which explores the cultural and environmental history of their region (see “Civil War Washington” at as an example).

“During the first year of the project, students will be deeply engaged in questions of problem solving and project design,” DeSpain said. “Students will be asked to analyze the community around them to understand the linkages between place, experience and culture as a means for best determining how to use computational skills and a digital environment to explore and visualize these linkages.”

Throughout the three-year project, students will learn how a career in the computer sciences might allow them to address problems globally or locally. They will also be developing a wide variety of skills such as: file management, large-scale project management, HTML, web development, database management, search optimization strategies, digital image, video and sound editing, multimedia and geographic information systems mapping, information and technological literacy, interviewing, writing for the web, public performance and oral communication.

Students will be exposed to the skills necessary for careers in fields as diverse as IT, web development, mass communication, social media, information science and graphic design.
The community engagement feature of the project will have a direct impact on parents, caregivers, siblings and community leaders. Digital East St. Louis will serve as a data source for urban scholars and as an educational tool for schools.

The program model and curriculum will be made widely available to educators working in similar contexts for further testing and replication.

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