The world often sees East St. Louis as poor, crime-ridden and decaying, but a group of young residents is looking at the city through a new lens.
A camera lens, that is.
They’re taking photos of local landmarks, doing research and creating digital walking tours to post on a website called East St. Louis Culture at www.eaststlouisculture.org.
Four boys on one team decided to focus on Frank Holten State Recreation Area.
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“You always hear about the shootings and the bad stuff in East St. Louis,” said Kylik Rich, 13, who will be an eighth-grader at Mason Clark Middle School. “We’re trying to show the good.
“One day I was doing cross-country in (Holten), and I saw a high-school reunion, and I thought it was kind of positive. This park was bringing people together, and it’s recreation for kids, too. There’s a basketball court. They don’t have to provide a basketball court, but they do.”
Remy Haire, 12, who will be a seventh-grader at Lincoln Middle School, is on the Jones Park team.
“We had to come up with research questions so we could learn more stuff,” she said. “There used to be a beach at Jones Park, and I did not know that. It was big. They had bath houses, and a train went over the lake.”
Remy seemed to be fascinated by old colorized postcards of the park, which made it look like something out of a storybook.
Remy describes the park today as overgrown and littered with trash in places. She’s particularly concerned that fish could “choke” on items thrown in the water.
“Sometimes, (the research) gets difficult,” she said. “You have to go to three different sites or more to find the right answers. But you’ve got to keep going. It’s worth it. When you find the right information, it just makes your day.”
Kylik and Remy are two of 17 students enrolled in Coding for Community, a three-year project of Southern Illinois University Edwardsville based on the “digital humanities.”
“The big idea is that students are gaining technology and computing skills while learning about the community, its culture and history,” said project lead Sharon Locke, 52, of Edwardsville, also director of the SIUE Center for STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) Research, Education and Outreach.
Locke and her colleagues hope the experience will prompt students to pursue STEM-related careers.
On a recent Monday morning, Kylik was huddled around a computer screen with teammate James Taylor and coach Joe Winkelmann in a classroom at Mason Clark.
“We’re doing a tutorial on the Neatline (software plug-in), which will help them design their section of the website,” said Winkelmann, 30, of Edwardsville. “They’re picking it up pretty quick, so I haven’t had to spend a lot of time going over and over it. I’ve been impressed with how well they’ve done.”
The team also looked at photos to go with the Holten walking tour. James, 13, who will be an eighth-grader at Mason Clark, picked out the one he liked best.
“It includes the lake, the clubhouse and the lighthouse all together,” he said. “And it follows the rule of thirds. You want to make sure (the subject) isn’t in the center.”
James had learned about the rule of thirds from a professional photographer who spoke to the group.
Staff members also have brought in old postcards, maps, photos and yearbooks. They’ve taken students on field trips, including one to the Gateway Geyser on the Mississippi riverfront, which some had never seen.
“In the first week, one of the things we learned is that they actually have a very limited scope of where they travel in the city,” said curriculum lead Jessica DeSpain, 37, of Edwardsville, co-director of the SIUE Interdisciplinary Research and Informatics Scholarship Center.
In other words, students tend to stay in their own neighborhoods rather than venture out.
“I’ve heard them talk about how they wish things were different (less violence, poverty and guns),” DeSpain said. “But they don’t necessarily think about other people’s perception of the city.”
Coding for Community is being funded by a $846,000 grant from the National Science Foundation. Participation is free for East St. Louis students in sixth through ninth grades (breakfast, lunch and transportation provided).
This summer, the group is meeting three hours every weekday for a month. During the school year, they will meet two Saturday mornings a month.
“We hope to see more kids sign up,” DeSpain said. “We have room for 50.”
Kylik sees it as a win-win situation.
“The purpose is to learn more,” he said. “If I do this, I’ll get smarter and do better in school. And I’m getting out of the house. I can’t stay inside all day.”
This summer, students are creating five walking tours. Besides Holten, the others are Jones Park, the Emerson Park Neighborhood, Malcolm W. Martin Memorial Park and the Jackie Joyner-Kersee Center.
After putting facts, descriptions and photos of walking tours on the website, students will add other elements, such as interviews with local residents. They will learn about videotaping, editing photos and videos, archiving images and information, and writing and designing for the Web.
“(The website) is a tremendous resource, a community resource, that the children are creating,” Locke said. “It’s exciting.”
Parents of students interested in joining the Coding for Community project should visit www.eaststlouisculture.org, email curriculum and instruction professor Liza Cummings at firstname.lastname@example.org or call the STEM center at 618-650-3065.
Contact reporter Teri Maddox at email@example.com or 618-239-2473.