A Start in STEM: Elevate College Prep Utilizes Programming to Engage Young Learners



By Casey Halas
Students taking part in SMASH work with robotics at Kaplan Institute

Stemming off of Illinois Institute of Technology’s Elevate program, the university has launched its one-of-a-kind Elevate College Prep, a pre-college and college prep program aimed at providing middle school and high school students with opportunities to learn and pursue STEM fields in a college setting.

ECP is designed to provide multifaceted academic and real-world experiences for young learners who are typically underrepresented in STEM professions. It offers several options for learning across various disciplines, offering multiple programs for curious minds to thrive. Through opportunities such as mentorship with Illinois Tech students, unique academic activities, and hands-on experiences, students are able to immerse themselves in a space that is accessible, supportive, and enriching—gaining the skills that they need to be college and career ready.

Illinois Tech Associate Director of Pre-College Access Scott Tillman manages the various programs within ECP and works to build relationships with middle and high schools in the Chicago area.

Since ECP’s inception, Tillman has seen an outpouring of support for the program from participating students and educators, as well as from Illinois Tech faculty members and students.

“We’re still building our relationships with schools, and I think that as we’ve been building relationships, it’s been extremely positive in that schools are able to imagine what a visit could look like outside of just a one-time occurrence,” says Tillman.

He says that providing pre-college and college prep programs earlier allows students ample time to discover what career they want to go into and where they can see themselves.

“The programs that are being built out of [ECP] serve as a canvas of sorts for students to be able to build an affinity toward either college, STEM, or Illinois Tech specifically while they’re in high school starting their freshman year,” Tillman says.

He adds, “There’s research that dictates that students will have already decided their path by the time they get to their senior year, so I think that by having programs that start earlier than that time frame, we start to help students build and expand their possibilities even more.”

Through ECP, middle school and high school students can take part in summer programs (residential, daytime, online, or for-credit courses), apprenticeships, dual-enrollment courses, the DevUp Scholars Program, SMASH Academy, or attend special events.

ECP’s summer programs provide students a chance to examine pressing issues facing our society, including sustainability, next-generation technology, and computing and security, in summer programs that also highlight some of the most dynamic and growing fields today such as game development and cybersecurity. The apprenticeships program is a partnership with After School Matters Chicago where students can receive paid opportunities while being mentored by an Illinois Tech faculty member in an area such as business or cybersecurity.

Students interested in jumpstarting their college-prep work can register for dual-enrollment in college-level courses, which are taught by Illinois Tech faculty online and in person. Dual-enrollment courses offer a new challenge for students and an exposure to degree options through the multiple tracks included in the program, including biology, business, computer science, economics, information technology, and mathematics. Beginning in fall 2023, high schools can partner with ECP to offer dual-enrollment college courses at their school. These courses provide students with a hybrid learning experience through online and in-person, asynchronous teaching by Illinois Tech faculty.

SMASH Academy is a three-year intensive program for high school students who are going into 10th grade and beyond. Students in the program live on campus for five weeks each summer of the program and participate in STEM-focused courses; during the academic year, they participate in monthly programming. This program is a partnership with SMASH, and is part of SMASH Illinois, a collaboration between Illinois Tech, Southern Illinois University, and the CPASS Foundation. The DevUp Scholars Program is a three-year interactive program that provides high school students, mainly from Chicago’s South Side, with STEM and entrepreneurship opportunities, mentorship from Illinois Tech students, and monthly academic and experiential learning activities. Admission to the DevUp programs requires students going into 10th grade to be nominated by a high school teacher, counselor, or administrator who they believe exhibits leadership and a curiosity for STEM.

Tillman has a deep appreciation for the many partnerships and relationships that support all of the programs included in ECP. He emphasizes that ECP needs to continue to uplift communities, which will, in turn, uplift students and future generations of Illinois Tech alumni.

“We can’t exist as a silo or a space that is its own thing,” Tillman says. “We have to bear witness to the community, we have to connect with the community, and we have to build opportunities for students in and outside of the community to see themselves at Illinois Tech.”

Photo: A student [left] from the initial cohort of SMASH Illinois works with robotics at the Ed Kaplan Family Institute for Innovation and Tech Entrepreneurship in 2019.