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Elmhurst College summer program sparks student interest in STEM

ELMHURST – Local high school students Hansel Lopez, 18, and Rachael Harrison, 17, have attended Elmhurst College's Summer Academy in Math and Science for the past two years.

When asked why they have decided to keep coming back to the week-long program dedicated to exploring and encouraging STEM-related careers, they both answered they just liked to learn.

For Lopez, he said he sees the program's benefit when he heads back to school. The program serves as a review of key math and science concepts and formulas that are easily forgotten over the summer, he said.

Harrison, on the other hand, enjoys meeting and connecting with other students from different area high schools who are interested in those particular subjects. Getting to know other girls in the program has helped boost her confidence in pursuing her passion for science, which is "stereotypically" categorized as a boys' field, Harrison said.

Those are just a couple examples Evans Afenya, the program's director, hopes students take away from their experience.

In the last 20 years, Afenya, who is a math professor at Elmhurst College, has enlisted the help of close colleagues to build the curriculum for the academy with one goal in mind: How do we keep kids excited about math and science?

Afenya structured the curriculum to split into different daily workshops that include hour-long lessons in math, computer science, psychology, chemistry and biology.

Studies aside, Afenya also has crafted a program that brings in guest speakers to address other issues teens encounter like bullying, building relationships with friends and family, choosing the right college, knowing about financial aid, and chasing that dream job in science, technology, engineering or math.

Of course, there is time in what sounds like a rigorous schedule for students to relax and be with their peers, Afenya said.

He added as a whole, the program seeks to create a space for students to take the time to understand what they are capable of doing and achieving.

Myrtle Castro, 23, is a former student of the academy and has regulary volunteered as a mentor to the students. Castro said what is unique about the program is it brings together teens from different high schools and social and financial backgrounds to learn about "opportunities they can seize" in math and science.

Afenya said this year, 25 junior and senior high school students were selected from 15 schools, including Proviso Math and Science Academy in Forest Park, DePaul College Prep in Chicago, Willowbrook High School in Villa Park, York Community High School in Elmhurst and Waukegan High School.

Computer science professor Linda Krause reflected on teaching students basic coding skills to build a web page. At face value, everyone uses the Internet on a daily basis, but to learn the language of coding to create and design that website is a whole other story, Krause said.

Lopez said with just that introduction, he is already hooked and hopes to take a class or two during the school year.

Taking a look back on the past two decades of the program, Afenya said the purpose of the summer academy is to ultimately provide students with the "right attitude" to "control the beasts" hidden within math and science.

Ultimately, if students do choose another path, they hope to have given them the curiosity to wonder and wander, Krause said.


Know more

For information on the Summer Academy in Math and Science, visit

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