MAPSCorps Connects UChicago Students to the Community

From August, 2014

By Nicola Brown
Photo by Anne Ryan

“Do you want to hear the positive or the negative first?” Kuwan Foster, a recent graduate of Urban Prep Englewood and representative for Keep Loving Each Other (KLEO) Center, asked of the people who came to look at his group’s poster presentation at the MAPSCorps Scientific Symposium.

“It’s a new beginning of the positive age!” Foster exclaimed as he talked about the community gardens, fitness centers, and bike trails that he and other high school studets spent weeks collecting info on for MAPSCorps by walking around the South Side.

The Symposium is the culminating project of MAPSCorps, which stands for Meaningful Active Productive Science. This program allows University students to work with high school youth and conduct community-engaged research on the South Side of Chicago, according to the University Community Service Center. For six weeks, students went out into the community to collect data about resources in the South Side and how they are utilized, and the Symposium is the community’s chance to hear about their findings. Each group presented a poster on a broad topic – such as health, employment, and community development – that shows the geographic area they covered, the assets they found, and the conclusions they have drawn.  Later, five groups of students gave oral presentations based on specific research questions, such as “Reducing Violence on the South Side” and “Fast Food Restaurants on the South Side of Chicago: Community Perceptions & Health Effects,” which were followed by responses from professionals in the community.

Five community centers participated, hundreds of high school students, University students and community members contributed, and mappers walked as many as fifty blocks a day on both sides of the street to map twenty-eight communities. But the benefits of MAPSCorps are more nuanced than what can simply be shown by numbers.

Foster and his group mapped the neighborhoods of Englewood, West Englewood, New City and Washington Park, led by Evelina Sterina, a rising third year in the college majoring in biology and psychology.  Sterina was a Metcalf intern for the program this summer, working as a programming field coordinator. Her responsibilities were part camp counselor, part teacher – she led teaching exercises in the afternoons that resulted in the posters, helped students come up with ideas for their presentations, and calmed flustered nerves on the final day.

Sterina and the other UChicago field coordinators were also the ones who went out with the high school students and “mapped” in the mornings, which meant that they walked around South Side neighborhoods from about 9 a.m. until 1 p.m. entering assets into a special MapApp. The data they collected was then sent to HealtheRx, where community organizations can use it to influence and adjust their service and programming decisions, and physicians use it to help their patients find local resources. When they were done with mapping, they would go back to project headquarters to discuss what they had accomplished that day and the conclusions they could draw about the effect of assets on the community.

A lot of emphasis was placed upon the fact that Sterina and the other programming field coordinators were facilitators and these were discussions, not lectures, in order to foster a feeling of community among students who might not have met or become friends otherwise. They engaged in a variety of activities to help organize ideas into thoughtful discussions.  Although the schedule of activities was created by Chris Skrable, associate director of UCSC, Sterina explained that she and the other facilitators had the freedom adjust and change the schedule as they saw fit as long as they ended up answering the cornerstone asset questions by the end of the week.

“I typically followed them pretty closely since the activities were very unique and engaging," Sterina said.

Skrable noted that the programming field coordinators were invaluable to the program in a number of ways. From being the initial focus group when developing the daily activities and acting as "near peer mentors" for the mappers, to guiding them through the challenges of conducting research and having a job without the pressure from a traditional boss, field coordinators performed "with incredible grace under pressure."

The best part, though, was just getting the students invested in what they were doing, Sterina said. More than just assessing the resources available in the South Side, MAPSCorps allows youth to come together and become a part of bettering their communities. 

“We managed to get most of our students involved in some kind of presentation,” she said.  “It’s really great to see them being really excited about it.” 

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