Skip to main content
Feature Story | Educational Programs and Outreach

Magic Tricks, Virtual Reality, and Trash Sorting: DOE STEM-CON Exposes Chicago’s South Side to Diverse STEM Opportunities and AI Advances

DOE’s Argonne National Laboratory collaborated with South Side of Chicago’s Gary Comer Youth Center to host a multi-national DOE lab exhibition for local youth.

In conjunction with the Department of Energy (DOE)’s InnovationXLab Artificial Intelligence Summit, DOE’s Argonne National Laboratory collaborated with South Side of Chicago’s Gary Comer Youth Center to host a multi-national DOE lab exhibition for local youth, showcasing the wide range of real-world ways they can use and have fun with computing and artificial intelligence (AI).

As students, teachers, and families from Chicago’s South Side bustled through Gary Comer Youth Center’s gym, having fun with the many hands-on activities of STEM-CON, DeShaun Evans of King College Prep High School eyed a grid of numbered cards. He was challenged to randomly flip one over, and the person running the booth, just by looking at the arrangement, could tell which one it was. And sure enough, the guess was on the mark, much to DeShaun’s astonishment – How did he do it?” he wondered. This was not simply a magic trick, however, but a computing tool that national labs such as Argonne used to showcase the amazing potential for AI science.

Together with Brookhaven National Laboratory, Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, Idaho National Laboratory, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Technology, and Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (all DOE national laboratories), Argonne hosted over 200 middle and high school students from across the South Side of Chicago on October 1st for a fun night of science and computing games. Coinciding with the Department of Energy’s InnovationXLAB Artificial Intelligence Summit, STEM-CON highlighted the rich future promised by artificial technology and explained the basic computing steps behind the technology through engaging and easy-to-learn activities. Argonne and the DOE is about connecting today’s world-class research to tomorrow’s STEM problem solvers,” said manager Meridith Bruozas. Through this event, students make connections with AI technologies, learn about careers in computing and AI, build their own confidence in STEM, and envision their future in STEM or even an AI field.”

I don’t know of any events on the South Side of Chicago for inner city kids to have something like this [event] .” – Marvin Evins, King College Prep High School Computer Science Teacher

This momentous event drew national attention with the presence of DOE leadership, who spoke on the need for new STEM specialists. According to the Honorable James Campos from the DOE, the U.S. will need over 1 million new STEM professionals by 2022, and it is up to the next generation to reach that potential. Everyone is waiting for you to use your mind to help them build a better life,” declared Congressman Bobby Rush, who represents the 1st District of Illinois (which encompasses the event site at Gary Comer Youth Center). Are you going to use it?” he continued. Cheers from the audience affirmed the students’ determination to make exactly that happen in their future dreams.

To help the students discover the tremendous futures offered by AI research, Argonne and the other labs ran booths that offered not only information on computational science but also immersive activities that showed how computational science can be fun and valuable in the real world. At Pacific Northwest National Lab’s booth, students had a blast trying out a virtual reality game, with players shouting enthusiastically as they experienced the virtual world. Lawrence Powell Junior, a student at Gary Comer High School, was particularly impressed with how realistic the VR game was. It’s like I’m in the game!” he shared. I look at it, and I’m like, This is no joke!’”

Entertainment is just one of many uses for artificial intelligence, and other workshops explored different areas where computers come in handy. Argonne ran a computing lab where students scanned items to, with the help of IBM Watson, make a computer program that could classify recyclable and non-recyclable trash – something easier said than done, since the computer doesn’t know any differences other than the ones you teach it. In this manner, they got to experience what it is like to train” a computer as computational scientists do each day, while also learning how AI can serve a variety of roles in our everyday lives.

The binary magic trick” with the numbered cards, run by Idaho National Laboratory, was another computer-related game, this one focusing on how binary language works. While DeShaun was intimidated by the process at first, once he started to learn the method behind the arrangement, and how you could identify any errors in the sequence, he realized that the once difficult exercise was actually quite easy for him. But he still knew that the trick was just the beginning of even greater computer processes, and he expressed interest in learning more about how computers translate messages, with the dream of one day making his own computer.

Most of all, STEM-CON helped youth by creating within them a sense of self-confidence for their futures as STEM professionals. Gary Comer High School student Nathaniel Patterson had trouble at first when creating a robot with magnets. It was hard arranging all the parts, so when he got it to work, he felt really surprised.” Likewise, after completing a Jenga-like block-stacking challenge that seemed to defy gravity, he gained a little pride” at his accomplishment. This has encouraged him to pursue further STEM pathways. I really want to study digital media,” he shared, so if I can learn something in STEM, I can transfer it to digital media.”

Teachers in the community were also very excited about the stimulating activities featured throughout STEM-CON, as they are ideal for generating long-term fascination with science. If you want kids to learn about stuff,” King College Prep teacher Marvin Evins asserted, you’ve got to create a sense of wonder in them.” STEM outreach is especially vital in communities lacking the full resources for STEM experiences. I don’t know of any events on the South Side of Chicago for inner city kids to have something like this [event],” Evins shared, happy at the opportunities STEM-CON created for his students and many others in the community. 

By immersing youth in the wonders of STEM fields such as artificial intelligence and showing how they can personally achieve futures as STEM professionals, Argonne-hosted events such as STEM-CON can make a positive difference for countless individuals and communities. In this room alone, and across this neighborhood, we have lots of new ideas and boundless curiosity — two qualities that are needed to accomplish great science,” Argonne Director Paul Kearns said. You have the potential to achieve great innovations and discoveries that we have yet to imagine.”

Argonne National Laboratory seeks solutions to pressing national problems in science and technology. The nation’s first national laboratory, Argonne conducts leading-edge basic and applied scientific research in virtually every scientific discipline. Argonne researchers work closely with researchers from hundreds of companies, universities, and federal, state and municipal agencies to help them solve their specific problems, advance America’s scientific leadership and prepare the nation for a better future. With employees from more than 60 nations, Argonne is managed by UChicago Argonne, LLC for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science.

The U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science is the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, visit https://​ener​gy​.gov/​s​c​ience.