COOL Summer Learning Experience Reflections

Hi Backyard Geographers, Julie here!

This summer, I was the Geographic Society of Chicago’s intern for the COOL Summer Learning Experience (CLE) in Waukegan, Illinois. Never having heard of Waukegan or CLE, I thought it would be a great chance to explore a new area, learn how to ride the Metra, and keep my GIS skills sharp. Little did I know, I’d leave at the end of the summer having met some amazing students who, might I add, were more proficient in GIS in eighth grade than I was as a freshman in college.

Each year since 2008, this summer education program has provided students with science-oriented experiential learning opportunities, and since 2012, the Geographic Society of Chicago (GSC) has been a part of that mission. In working together, CLE and the GSC are able to provide students with opportunities including field trips, GIS, and this year, improvisational comedy.

I was assigned to help the eighth and ninth grade students, and our main task was to create Story Maps (an interactive presentation-style technology from Esri) to display how Waukegan’s harbor has changed through the years. Story Maps are great tool to bring GIS and mapping to a broader audience beyond those already familiar with these technologies. With this in mind, our final product was three separate Story Maps on the past, present, and future of the harbor. We did this by gathering waypoints of local businesses near the harbor with our GPS units, and conducting interviews with the owners. We uploaded not only our data, but also photos and the information from the interviews to our Story Maps. The Story Maps were also made possible by a technology guru who went by the name of Turtle as well as a helpful volunteer named Dave.

 There are many teachers, staff members, and volunteers behind this operation, but the leader of the pack is the caring and benevolent Ms. Coyote (Barbara Waller), who insists that everyone at the camp, including both staff and students, goes by a “nature name.” The concept of nature names had a way of bringing everyone together, and I was excited to be dubbed “Otter.”

At one point, the students were to give presentations on potential career they would like to pursue. As the students were practicing their presentations, their teacher Ms. Butterfly (Kimberly Waller) and I noticed that some of them could use a confidence boost. Once Ms. Butterfly found out that I enjoy doing and teaching improvisational comedy in my spare time, she decided that we could use this to help the students relax and feel confident in what they were saying. I watched their confidence blossom each time we did improv, which translated to them feeling more capable in their speech-giving as well as in their GIS skills. 

The community engagement that CLE fosters is unlike anything I’ve seen before; with these students being knowledgeable on their community’s history, it supports them in paving the way for their community’s future. If you are interested in learning more about COOL Summer Learning Experience and its mission, find its website linked here: