Every sixth grader in Evanston/Skokie School District 65 now has access to Northwestern University’s FUSE program, a buffet of nearly 30 hands-on, computer-based challenges in science, technology, engineering, arts, and math (STEAM).
Initially introduced as an after-school program in several District 65 pilot schools, FUSE was incorporated into the revamped sixth-grade “advisory” class, which helps students transition to middle school.
“We really like the high degree of choice FUSE offers kids,” said Stacy Beardsley, Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum and Instruction for District 65. “After getting the positive feedback from the pilot programs, we wanted all students to be able to participate.”
FUSE studios are now operating in a wide range of elementary, middle, and high schools – public and private, urban and rural – from Schaumburg to Helsinki, Finland.
More than 130 schools and organizations currently implement FUSE, which reaches more than 16,000 students across Chicago, the United States, and internationally every year. Locally, in addition to Evanston/Skokie School District 65, FUSE partners with Schaumburg School District 54 and Crystal Lake School District 47.
“We’ve had kids say ‘FUSE saved seventh grade for me; it’s the only reason I come to school,’” said FUSE Director Reed Stevens, Professor of Learning Sciences at Northwestern’s School of Education and Social Policy. “Those responses are what keep us going.”
In a FUSE studio, there are no assignments, traditional lectures, or grades. Instead, students select from several dozen carefully designed computer-based challenge sequences. As they get better, they level up or get harder challenges, much like video games. Moving at their own pace and following their own path, students pursue challenges that interest them.
On a recent day in a FUSE studio, “one group of kids dug in from day one and was thoroughly challenged and engaged,” Dr. Beardsley said. “But there were also kids hopping between challenges. It creates a great opportunity for kids to sample and dive in when they have a passion.”
A growing body of research, supported by grants from the National Science Foundation, suggests that FUSE helps youngsters discover new interests in STEAM and supports developing 21st-century skills such as persistence, adaptive problem solving, and collaboration.
“FUSE also advances the use of new tools and technologies, including 2D design, programming, robotics, 3D printing, and all kinds of software for creative production,” Mr. Stevens said. “Regular schools aren’t caught up in these areas, so we’re a good complement to traditional subject matter schooling.”
Teachers play the role of facilitator in a FUSE studio and can receive professional development training through Northwestern’s periodic two-day workshops, generally held near the end of the summer.
“We are not on the stage anymore; we’re there to support and guide but we don’t give them answers, especially in FUSE,” said Gary Cipinko, instructional learning coach at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Literary and Fine Arts School in Evanston.
“The challenges don’t always have a ‘right’ answer and there’s some frustration built in for students,” Mr. Cipinko said. “Part of my job as facilitator is to know when to step in and guide or point them in another direction.”
But what often happens is that the students become the experts, which empowers them in a new way, Mr. Cipinko added “They’ll be the first ones to say to another student, ‘oh, let me help you with that.’”