Inspiring Success

A blog from Creating IT Futures

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August 31, 2017

FUSE’ STEAM Program Already Doubling its Reach with NextUp

By Eric Larson

FuseSTEAMProgramTo inspire more young people toward learning paths that lead to IT careers, CompTIA launched NextUp. After studying the issue with IDEO, the international design firm, CompTIA tapped Creating IT Futures last year to manage NextUp with an initial $2 million investment over the first two years. NextUp focuses on middle-school students, those in the “dreamer” stage of the career lifecycle, as posited by the IDEO designers. Our efforts already are gaining more initial success than we anticipated.

NextUp needed ways to achieve large-scale influence. So, we particularly looked at possible partner programs that were already in schools. By and large, school districts want to tackle the STEM worker shortage, but it’s not always easy for them to find teachers with advanced STEM knowledge, as professional scientists, engineers and technologists can usually make higher salaries outside of teaching. 


Enter FUSE, a research-based STEAM learning program headquartered at Northwestern University in Chicago. The FUSE program equips a school’s ordinary computer lab with extraordinary possibility, as a single FUSE Lab can introduce hundreds of a school’s students to dozens of opportunities for hands-on engagement with tech-related challenges. 


During its first five years, FUSE found its way to about 70 schools, most of them in the Chicagoland area. This year, NextUp announced it would fund more than 20 new CompTIA / FUSE labs around the country through a grant application process. More than 100 schools applied, and the publicity surrounding the grants resulted in an additional 50 or so schools investing in FUSE studios, effectively doubling the program’s reach in a single year. (Retail cost for a FUSE studio is between $15,000-$20,000 the first year, followed by a $6,000 renewal fee each year going forward.)


FUSE was started by Northwestern education professor Reed Stevens. A former high school math teacher himself, Stevens wanted to develop a STEAM program that most any school could implement. He knew that a lot of STEAM programming — the A stands for Arts and Design — was extra-curricular, leaving out poorer families that lacked transportation options or the money for fees. FUSE, on the other hand, can work in any school that has computer lab and scheduling that allows students to spend at least 90 minutes a week with the curriculum. And FUSE isn’t just geared to advanced learners, which means anyone can take part. 


“We are so excited about the opportunities that this partnership has created,” said FUSE Program Director Henry Mann, “The grants we’ve offered in partnership with CompTIA have enabled schools to access our innovative STEAM program that might not otherwise be able to afford to. Because of this literally thousands of students from around the country are going to be introduced to fun, real world STEAM and IT activities in a way that is engaging and relevant to their lives. Already we’re hearing great feedback from teachers from the CompTIA funded schools and we can’t wait to see the impact of our partnership continue to develop.”


The FUSE philosophy has students directing their own learning, with teachers acting more as facilitators and encouragers. Each student has the freedom to log onto the FUSE website and browse a portfolio of challenges, and each challenge has up to three or four levels. A student can complete all the levels of a challenge before moving to another—or not. FUSE hopes that students will find at least one challenge that engages them so thoroughly that they take a deep dive into the activity. 


For example, in the Dream Home challenge, students learn to use SketchUp — sort of a Minecraft on steroids — to create their dream house. Some students have taken the challenge even farther, to design neighborhoods and entire towns with intricate building interiors and exteriors. 


As part of CompTIA’s partnership with FUSE, three new FUSE challenges are being developed that introduce students to IT tools and concepts. For example, the Mini-Jumbotron challenge will require students to connect a small computer called an Arduino to an LED light board and use special software to flash and scroll words, messages, and emojis that the students design.


We’re excited about growing our partnership with FUSE in 2018. And we’re excited about what NextUp is doing with other partners as well. Based in Philadelphia, TechGirlz is expanding to other cities, beginning with Chicago. We’re also working with New York Academy of Sciences to find ways of engaging more tech mentors in their programming. Look for further NextUp news this fall, especially as we start recruiting tech mentors to work in the schools and with our partners to help inspire more teens to tech careers.