Cardboard Carnival: Marble Adventure Edition STEM challenge launches for Evanston youth, focus on underrepresented groups


Courtesy of Tyler Works and Kirby Callam

A scene from last year’s Cardboard Carnival. This year’s virtual program centers around building a marble run, and the deadline to submit a video is Mar. 6.

Laya Neelakandan, Assistant Arts & Entertainment Editor

What do cardboard, marbles and motors have in common? That’s for Evanston youth to figure out through this year’s Cardboard Carnival: Marble Adventure Edition.

On Jan. 23, Evanston Public Library and EvanSTEM launched this year’s Cardboard Carnival, open to Evanston youth in grades 4 – 8. The challenge invites participants to design a marble run, a slide-like sculpture for a rolling marble, from scratch using cardboard and provided materials, such as motors, craft sticks and tape. Participants who submit videos of their marble runs by Mar. 6 will be entered in a raffle to win prizes.

Tyler Works, a Cardboard Carnival organizer, said the program has evolved since it began as a mentoring program between Northwestern graduate students and Evanston youth. Inspired by the success of last year’s Cardboard Carnival, the team decided to expand the program this year.

“Because of the pandemic, we’ve switched to doing (the Cardboard Carnival) virtually,” Works said. “As opposed to telling the kids how to do it from start to finish, we really wanted to stress the idea of giving them freedom to create different things.”

Kirby Callam, the director of EvanSTEM, said the team had to think creatively to find a way to engage kids amid the pandemic. He said Rube Goldberg machines on TikTok and YouTube inspired the group to focus this year’s challenge on a marble run.

The program does not require any prior experience, and online tutorials will provide opportunities for participants to learn about the design process, engineering, prototyping and more.

But the pandemic has also made it difficult for students without internet access to participate. Elacsha Madison, a project organizer and mentor, said although the team provides hotspots and Chromebooks available for families who need them, sometimes people hesitate to ask for them, making it difficult to assess who needs the resources.

This year, the program is also focusing on supporting traditionally underrepresented groups in STEM through extra workshops, meet-ups and mentor sessions. Works said the program’s main mission is to provide opportunities for Black and Latinx youth, girls and non-binary youth because Works said they “recognize that not everyone is starting from the same place.”

Madison said one of the main reasons she decided to help this year is the program’s focus on girls — especially girls of color.

“It’s really important to have girls in STEM,” Madison said. “The reason I was so eager to do it this year is because it’s so important for them to see representation.”

Despite the virtual environment, Madison said she hopes the program will still engage families and see a large turnout.

The Cardboard Carnival also aims to help prepare elementary and middle school students to fully embrace STEM opportunities in high school.

Theoretical and Applied Mechanics PhD candidate Samantha Webster said she enjoys mentoring the children not only because she can teach them about engineering, but also because she likes talking with them.

“I enjoy hearing about what’s going on in their lives, because it can be difficult to learn when your environment is changing,” Webster said. “I like being able to reach out to other students who might not have had the same opportunities in STEM like I did.”

Works said this year’s Cardboard Carnival is a group effort between multiple organizations including Digital Divas, MetaMedia, Family Focus and Evanston/Skokie School District 65. The program is funded by the Project Next Generation Grant from the Illinois State Library and is one of four in a series this year to engage Evanston youth in STEM challenges.

“We’ve had way, way more interest than we ever thought we’d have — we’ve already had 180 families sign up,” Callam said. “STEM is a huge career opportunity… (and) we need to make it a more equitable society where folks have equal opportunities.

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Twitter: @laya_neel

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