Rose Mabwa went online one day looking for help for the community she serves. What happened next had the potential to change the future for thousands of young people and their families.
For the past eight years, Mabwa, a native of Kenya, has worked for a nonprofit real estate developer called The Community Builders. The organization, established in Boston in 1964, specializes in revitalizing urban and suburban communities and manages or owns more than 11,000 apartments in more than 90 neighborhoods across 20 states.
Mabwa works in the community life department as a senior manager of The Community Builders’ Chicago office. She is the reason there is a connection between her employer and Illinois State University.
“A couple of years ago I was looking for a STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) partner,” Mabwa said. “I was looking on the internet and found Dr. Brad.”
Enter Dr. Brad Christensen, a STEM specialist with Illinois State’s Center for Mathematics, Science, and Technology (CeMaST). Mabwa was working on a project on Chicago’s West Side for low-income residents.
“The schools there lack a lot of resources, and the kids are usually a year or two behind,” Mabwa said. “We sent a survey to see what they were lacking.”
What she found out put her on the search that began a partnership with Illinois State that is still going strong. It’s been six years since those keystrokes led her to Christensen.
“Rose is always looking for opportunities for her residents, especially to do STEM-related projects that can be tied to higher education,” Christensen said. “She’s very concerned about opportunities for the teenagers.”
On his first visit to The Community Builders, Christensen introduced CeMaST’s Smart Grid for Schools program in order to teach the students about electricity. He rolled several large boxes into Mabwa’s community room, and students opened them to find a full-sized kitchen inside. Once everything was hooked up and turned on, students used the attached smart meters to see how much electricity was being used.
These days, Christensen annually ships Mabwa dollhousesize smart-home simulations, and models of power plants, high-voltage towers, substations, houses, and stores. They are all set up on a table like a little town that lights up.
“They get it all working, then use smart meters to see how best to efficiently use electricity,” Christensen said. “The dollhouses are full of $1,700 worth of smart house technology, and each has its own Wi-Fi.
“We’re teaching kids about the electrical grid by using dollhouses. And, they get exposure to energy-related careers, and that really appeals to Rose.”
Christensen has also taught sessions for the students on how to build one of his push karts. These are well-known in Bloomington-Normal where they are used by several schools, the Western Avenue Community Center, and the Children’s Discovery Museum.
“We build muscle karts, a play on the muscle car from the ’70s—muscle because you have to use your muscles to get them moving,” he said. “We have 17 chassis that are 3 feet wide and 6 feet long each. They have steering, brakes, and a push bar on the back. One kid drives and two push.”
The children form teams and make cardboard bodies for the cars and then race them by pushing them around the parking lot. When it’s all done the cardboard bodies are removed, the rest is loaded back on the trailer, and Christensen heads on to the next school.
Illinois State students have been heavily involved in this partnership between CeMaST and The Community Builders.
As an undergraduate Mennonite College of Nursing student, Christine Voelker ’19 worked for CeMaST and with Christensen on the muscle kart and smart grid programs. Her duties included transportation and scheduling, making sure equipment was delivered and later picked up on time. Voelker, who is now a nurse in Chicago, appreciated what she was doing.
“I felt I was working for a purpose, for a really good cause, as I do now as a nurse,” she said. “We were helping provide kids with programs where they learned a lot, and it was fun for them. It was so fun to watch them having fun.”
Voelker said the kids learned life lessons they might not otherwise have received.
“Because we didn’t give them the answers right away, they had to work for it and think about how to solve a problem,” she said. “They learned critical-thinking skills and built resiliency that will help them throughout life.”
Last summer, Mabwa and her team arranged for a series of Zoom sessions organized by Illinois State faculty and graduate students. Professor of Environmental Health Dr. Guang Jin and Health Sciences Instructor Christy Bazan prepared a food safety session where food thermometers were shipped to the students who then performed a health inspection of their own kitchens inside their apartments. The session was modeled after the inspections that Bazan conducts on industrial kitchens. Ph.D. student Jaclyn Everly conducted a Zoom class on mosquitoes and taught students how to make mosquito traps. Graduate student Sadia Sultana led a hand-washing experiment with gloves and germs.
Graduate student Eva Gunawan held a session on DNA. The participants received a DNA strip, which they colorcoded, and then told Gunawan what the genetic code was. She then typed the code into her computer program and was able to tell students the scientific name of the species for their DNA strip. Students typed that scientific name into Google to find out what it was. There was a flower, a fish, clams, snakes, birds, and a frog in the group.
Gunawan became involved with CeMaST after seeing a help wanted email from a professor seeking volunteers to teach elementary and high school students.
“I volunteered for the high school students,” said Gunawan, who is finishing a master’s degree in biotechnology while working in Assistant Professor of Cellular Immunology Dr. Nate Mortimer’s laboratory. “When I taught BIO 101 my first semester at ISU, I was really nervous, but I liked it. I wanted to teach again, so I volunteered.”
Gunawan said the lessons enable the students to engage in scientific thinking by completing some of the same exercises and using the same tools that she and her colleagues use.
“This was a really good opportunity to foster scientific thought patterns,” Gunawan said.
Dr. Rebekka Darner, director of CeMaST and a science education researcher herself, said Christensen’s work meets two of CeMaST’s goals: supporting the integration of STEM experiences throughout the lives of children, and reaching out those marginalized groups who are underrepresented in STEM education and careers, most notably women, Black, Native American, and Latinx students.
“As STEM educators, we have to ask ourselves why some of these groups are underrepresented,” Darner said. “What has our instruction of STEM done to make them feel they are not included? We have to give them a sense of belonging: ‘You belong, and your ideas matter.’”
Darner said that CeMaST is able to serve communities due to Christensen building relationships throughout the state. For Mabwa, it’s about exposing families to new possibilities.
“I love seeing people thrive and fulfill their dreams, which ties back to the mission of Community Builders of building and sustaining strong communities where all people can thrive,” she said. “We do this using a community-based approach and partnerships with others. We seek to understand, respect, and support the communities we serve.”
Mabwa called this partnership with higher education a great way to close the gap for folks who need a little help.
“A lot of our residents have a lot of talent and respond very well and are ready to collaborate,” she said. “They have desire, but they don’t have the resources. Once they are connected they can succeed. To hear a kid say he wants to be a brain surgeon or a veterinarian or a biologist, that touches my heart in so many ways.”