Superintendent Elizabeth Alvarez stands by as students learn how to use the new STEAM lab. - Igor Studenkov

Students at Field-Stevenson Intermediate Elementary School and Forest Park Middle School are kicking off the 2023-2024 school year with brand-new Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Math (STEAM) labs.

Putting STEAM labs in all Forest Park School District 91 schools has been a major priority for Supterintendent Elizabeth Alvarez. The district’s board of education approved the contract for the labs last winter, with a penalty clause that will kick in if Chicago-based Pacific Construction Services didn’t finish work by late August. When students and parents got their first peek at the labs last Wednesday, there were a few unfinished decorative touches, but equipment and space-wise, the labs were ready to go.

The school district marked the launch of the STEAM labs with a ribbon-cutting and a guided tour of the labs. The event took place right before the regularly scheduled open house. The teachers and district officials said that they were eager to see how the students will be able to use the new labs in the years to come.

Parents are introduced to Forest Park Middle School’s state-of-the art STEAM lab.

As previously reported by the Review, the labs were built inside the formerly underused spaces within the building. For Field-Stevenson, the lab is built in what was a teachers’ lounge, at the lower level on the west side of the building. The middle school lab was built in an unused space at the northeast corner of the building, right next to the “cafetorium” or auditorium/cafeteria space. While the Field-Stevenson lab is slightly out of the way, the middle school lab is centrally located.  

While the labs have some differences to account for the students’ ages, and the middle school lab is physically bigger, they both follow a similar design principle. Each lab has an area where students can do experiments, a more casual learning and research area, and an amphitheater-style seating area where students can make presentations. Each lab also has a quiet room with transparent walls where students can work in groups while still being visible to the teachers in the main lab. The middle school lab has power strips coming down from the ceiling, so that the students don’t rip over them when they move around, and the Field-Stevenson lab has large monitors at every table that students can easily plug their Chromebooks into to do presentations. 

The quiet rooms are the only spaces with permanent walls – the idea is that the lab furniture and equipment can be easily shifted around based on students’ needs and changes in technology.

In the speech before the ribbon-cutting, Dr. Robert Hubbird, the district’s Assistant Superintendent of Finance and Operations, acknowledged that some parts of the labs – such as the graphics on the walls – were not finished at the time, but he said that the remaining work should be finished by the beginning of September.  

District 91 hired one new teacher for each lab to handle the instructions. Melissa Bravo, who will be teaching at the Field-Stevenson lab, said that she taught STEAM classes for eight years. She said she was looking forward to everything she’ll be able to do.

“It’s exciting to get to use robotics and do all the hands-on projects that are great for students,” she said, adding that the class will do graphic design for projects such as the school’s newsletter.

The Museum of Science and Industry Chicago is working with District 91 to provide professional development for the lab teachers and put on programs such as field trips. Jarrad McCarthy, the museum’s director of education business development and sales, told the Review that this is something his employer does with other school districts and nonprofits throughout the Chicago area. 

“We’re just really happy to be getting kids really excited about STEAM,” he said.

In her speech before the ribbon-cutting, Alvarez said that she strongly believed in STEAM labs because it was important to teach students how interconnected the five disciplines are, and because she believed the labs would teach students skills that would set a foundation for the jobs of the future. 

“You really feel the difference when you come into the Forest Park Middle School or Field-Stevenson,” she said. 

Mayor Rory Hoskins praised the district board of education for agreeing to pay for the STEAM labs, and the MSI for supporting them. 

Village Commissioner Maria Maxham’s youngest daughter is attending Forest Park Middle School, and her older children attended schools in the district.

“It’s great to see the progress since my oldest kid has been here,” she said. “My daughter is really excited about having a STEAM class every day.”