By Etelka Lehoczky

At first it may seem like an ordinary April day at Waukegan’s Greenbelt Cultural Center, just outside of Chicago, but in the big ballroom the air is humming. At tables all around the room, small groups of teenagers are hard at work – murmuring, laughing and capturing ideas on laptops.”

The teens have been brought together thanks to a complex partnership – and some creative thinking – by three innovative Chicago organizations. The kids attend Waukegan High School, a culturally diverse institution with more than 4,000 students. They’re being aided by employees of Forsythe Technology, Inc., a privately held, employee-owned company based in Skokie, Ill. Then there’s the fulcrum: Chicago-area nonprofit Lumity, which organized the event as part of its STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) Career Readiness Program. After 32 years in operation, Lumity is shifting its mission to focus on providing transformational experiences for at-risk youth that prepare them for lifelong STEM careers.

The exercise today is to conceive and create a business case for a mock smartphone app. As the teens work through their designs they must think creatively, assess one another’s ideas and hone their presentation skills. And they’re clearly having a great time doing it.

“For today’s program, we just wanted to do something fun and exciting,” says Lumity board member Jenny Schulte, who works as a senior vice president of human resources at Forsythe. “We wanted to emphasize building relationships as well as technical skills. Plus, they get the opportunity to work with financial professionals.”

These professionals, all from Forsythe, can be easily picked out around the room because of their shirts: bold purple tees emblazoned across the back with the slogan, “Kicking apps and taking names.” Their insights have been invaluable, says 17-year-old Coryell Jones-Dorsey.

“They’re really helpful. If you have an idea, they help you see how it should work to incorporate it into a business,” the senior says.

Dr. Bethel Cager, the associate superintendent of school leadership and development of Waukegan’s district, drops by to observe.

“How often have you heard a high school student say, ‘What am I gonna use this for?’” she asks rhetorically. “We want to eliminate that. As we build this for students, we want to make sure their voices are loudly heard.”

One of Jones-Dorsey’s teammates is Niolis Collazo-Rivera, a 16-year-old who serves on Waukegan’s student advisory committee.

“We’re learning a lot,” she says. “I like to study concrete subjects like math, but listening to other people’s ideas is very fun.”

Jack Stonebraker, Lumity’s director of career readiness, isn’t surprised the project has gone over well. “We’ve seen this approach to be a very rich experiential learning model for the students,” he says. “Mobile apps are something kids use every day. They all have phones. They may not have a computer or Internet at home, but most have a smartphone.”

The day hasn’t just benefited the participating students. Marshall Ruetz, Waukegan’s academic chair for career and technical education, explains that the teens will bring knowledge back to classmates who weren’t here today.

“The students who are here will give presentations in their classes about what they did, what apps they developed,” Ruetz says. “They’ll tell them that, if this opportunity comes along again, they should take it. Word of mouth is huge in high school. Next year when we’re doing this we’re going to have lines of kids wanting to participate.”

There will probably be lines to sign up over at Forsythe, too. The financial professionals here today have varying levels of experience working with kids, but they all seem to be naturals at it. They focus intently on the teens’ ideas, offering down-to-earth suggestions and helping them create complex financial statements. As part of the exercise the students must forecast expenses, revenues, break-even points and other data.

“They’re meeting people who are actually in industry. They can network with us, brainstorm with us, get advice on areas of focus,” says Eric Obenberger, a senior accountant at Forsythe. “I think of myself back in high school – all I knew was that I had an interest in math. I didn’t know what to do with that. But there are a million things to do with finance.”

Real-world applications like this are at the heart of Lumity’s STEM initiative. Its other programming includes talks from STEM professionals, corporate site visits and the Student Business Enterprise (SBE), in which high school juniors and seniors launch and operate their own small companies. To develop its STEM programming Lumity is working with its numerous long-term partners in high-tech industries, including Accenture, Allstate, CDW, Forsythe Technology, Health Care Services Corp., Microsoft and Slalom Consulting.

As the day advances, students take turns presenting their apps to a panel of judges. Soon it’s time for the top two teams to deliver their presentations to the whole room. The winners are Limelight, which aims to lower entertainment ticket prices, and CARry On, an urban guide for visitors unfamiliar with a city.

“Personally I would love to do standup comedy,” announces Alex Hernandez, 18, of the Limelight team. “So maybe you’ll find me listed on Limelight someday.”

He’s not the only one looking toward the future.

“We want to continue to touch more students and work with more schools in the area of critical thinking and problem solving skills – exposing kids to more real-world projects,” says Jack Stonebraker. “We’d like to see these kids in good STEM careers, making a living wage or better, and making a difference in their communities.”