For the past 45 years, the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago has celebrated the contributions of African Americans to the fields of science, engineering, technology, medicine and the arts through its Black Creativity program.
What began in 1970 as a new home for a popular exhibition of African American art — rooted in the museum’s Hyde Park neighborhood and organized by community leaders — has grown into an annual tradition at the Museum of Science and Industry, introducing more African Americans to the diverse resources of the museum and the wonders of science. At its heart, the mission of Black Creativity is to inspire African American youth to explore educational and career opportunities in science, technology, engineering and medicine through programming that encourages children and their families to utilize the museum as a means for exploring and discovering their inventive and creative genius. The juried art exhibition, which displays the works of professional and amateur artists from around the country, is Black Creativity’s signature event and remains the longest running exhibition of African American art in the nation.Rabiah Mayas, who is the museum’s director of science and integrated strategies and has helped steer the Black Creativity program over the past four years, says that the “museum very much maintains the spirit of the original community-based art show and all the different voices of art production there are within African American communities.” Over the decades, a larger, more expansive Black Creativity program has emerged alongside the art exhibition, offering a look at African American achievements in science, technology, engineering and medicine. The current program features the Innovation Studio, a hands-on workshop where students can explore and invent their own science experiments; the Jr. Science Cafe, a place where students can interact with and receive career-related advice and information from scientists; and an annual black-tie gala that raises funds for the program. Today the Museum of Science and Industry brings this dynamic, multilayered, and interactive program to more than 25,000 students, teachers and families each year.
The 2015 Black Creativity program kicked off with a Family Day on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, January 19, and ran through February 22. The theme for this year focused on innovation, inspiring children to develop their creativity and become the inventors of tomorrow. The juried art exhibition contained 104 works by 62 African American artists from across the nation, including art produced by a dozen high school students in the Youth Category. Following an open call format, Mayas and her team have made concerted efforts to make the art submission process accessible to teens. To this end, the Museum of Science and Industry markets the exhibition to various youth art communities, including After School Matters, and posts announcements at libraries and within community organizations. It also spreads the word among art instructors and teachers, particularly those teaching arts within the public school system. To further reduce barriers to entry, the museum waives the application fee for the Youth Category. Mayas explains that all of these efforts have resulted in an overall increase of applications submitted by teens. A panel of five jurors selects the pieces for exhibition, which range in subject matter and encompass diverse mediums like painting, sculpture, mixed-media, photography, drawing and ceramics. First, second and third place overall show winners are chosen, as well as a winner in each medium category and the Youth Category. Each year the winners are recognized at a reception held at the museum.
Beyond the awards, the Innovation Studio is a particularly popular highlight of Black Creativity. The museum sets up a dedicated space in which school groups are provided with hands-on materials, kid-friendly tools, and equipment and are encouraged to invent their own solutions to issues that impact people, spanning areas like energy, the environment, transportation, and health. Afterwards, students are invited to put their inventions on display right at the museum for public viewing. Innovation Studio is a powerful component of Black Creativity, enabling youth not only to think outside of the box in terms of science, but also to gain confidence in their knowledge and ability to, quite literally, “engineer” solutions to pervasive challenges.
To the school groups that participate in Innovation Studios, Patrick McCarthy, a facilitator for the museum’s Wagner Family Fab Lab, often poses the question, “What do you see in everyday life that could use improvement?” McCarthy says that the students come up with their own ideas, but asking open-ended questions often encourages new ways of thinking about how they can begin to effect a positive change through science on the world around them.
I saw this in action on a wintry day in January, when a group of middle school students from the Lenart Elementary Regional Gifted Center, a Chicago public school located on the city’s south side, gathered at the Innovation Studio. After McCarthy and co-facilitator Jennifer Zurawicz chatted about the legacy of rich contributions of African American innovators as a source of inspiration, the students split into small groups and began excitedly coming up with answers to everyday problems.One group invented a snow shovel equipped with a readymade compartment for salt, another created a voice-activated television remote control, another fashioned a wearable scarf with built-in headphones, and yet another group engineered a mechanical windmill that could blow out candles on a birthday cake. “I didn’t know that I could be an innovator!” is a common sentiment that McCarthy finds echoed among students taking part in Innovation Studio.
Another element of the Black Creativity program, the Jr. Science Cafe, provides an informal setting where youth can interact with working scientists and STEM professionals and have a chance to learn about their daily lives, educational and career paths, and work experiences. Recent professionals who have participated in the program are Nana Antwi, Beverage Technologist at Imbibe, who engineered different beverages and flavors to sample at the cafe; Felicia Parks, Ph.D., Director, L’Oreal Institute for Ethnic Hair & Skin Research, who spoke about the science of the hair industry; David Mays, a DJ, Executive Director and STEM Consultant at Master Mix Academy, who discussed the science behind sound; and Linda Boasmond, owner of Cedar Concepts Corp., who talked about manufacturing chemicals that her company then sells globally.
Mayas says that the Museum of Science and Industry values its role in inspiring a new generation of innovative thinkers and creators and wants young African Americans to come away with the understanding that scientists are multifaceted, have diverse careers and backgrounds, and are employed in a broad range of industries. In essence, “we’re saying that scientists and engineers are everywhere” Mayas emphasizes, adding that it helps the museum to “stay connected to what’s on the cutting-edge and to inspire students to choose an aspect of science as an ultimate career.”
While the Museum of Science and Industry celebrates a new generation, the annual gala serves to honor the past while laying the groundwork for the future. Each year the gala pays tribute to the culture, heritage and science contributions of African Americans and, this year, raised $500,000 in support of Black Creativity’s programs and events. The gala’s 750 guests heard remarks from David Mosena, president and CEO of the Museum of Science and Industry, and listened to entertainment by the Soul Children of Chicago, The MoFitz Project and DJ Lil’ John.
Mayas stresses that Black Creativity is just one avenue for the museum to connect its resources to African American youth. The museum is committed year-round to exposing children to innovations in science, technology, engineering and medicine, largely through its Center for the Advancement of Science Education (CASE). CASE is a platform that mobilizes children to reach their full potential by directly engaging youth and helping to guide them, as well as their families, teachers and communities, on decisions relating to school and career choices. CASE provides scholarships to students for field trips, after-school activities and youth development initiatives at the Museum of Science and Industry. Teachers have the opportunity to acquire curriculum-based science guides, while community organizations can partner with the museum on educational initiatives, such as the Science Minors Club and Science Achievers. Schools can register for facilitated, hands-on Learning Labs held at the museum, which also offers Learning Lab scholarships for economically disadvantaged schools. Through WOW! Tours, children gain access to behind-the-scenes office and work spaces at the museum and learn little-known facts about the exhibitions.
According to Mayas, the MSI’s year-round mission to educate, bring awareness, inspire and bridge the gap between African American youth and success in science-related careers, particularly for young African Americans who are interested in these paths but may need guidance in navigating the steps along the way, cumulates with Black Creativity each February. At the Museum of Science and Industry, Mayas explains, “we are holding ourselves accountable to a model of the ever-changing landscape of science and science education. We’re helping to provide a diversified view of what science is and who scientists look like. We want to demystify what it means [for African American youth] to pursue science as a career.”