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Shegan Campbell (Chicago Booth '05) Launches Kids Science Labs

ARTICLE BY: Sandra Guy

Chicago Sun-Times

August 5th 2011

Hands-on program helps answer kids’ questions through science

Six-year-old Conor Giroux loves T-ball and martial arts, while his 4-year-old sister, Maggie, favors dancing and playing the piano.

Their mom, Maureen, wants to broaden their experiences to include new territory — the learning-by-doing Kids Science Labs, a new, six-day-a-week program for 2- to 12-year-olds debuting Aug. 29 in the Lincoln Park neighborhood.

The Girouxs got a taste of the lab experience when the children attended a “test” class at Pump It Up, a kids’ birthday party venue.

Conor was hooked, and Mrs. Giroux was happy that Maggie had seen something new and different.

“My son said, ‘I know how to make slime,” said Mrs. Giroux, an Irving Park resident whose children attend Cardinal Bernardin Early Childhood Center. “He repeated the instructions verbatim. It got him excited about science. He wanted to pick up books on science experiments. Something that simple made an impact.”

That’s the goal of Kids Science Labs, the brainchild of Shegan Campbell, a 37-year-old South Loop resident who partnered with a now-silent business colleague to build the first lab at 1500 N. Kingsbury.

The 4,300-square-foot hands-on learning center sports cork floors, plywood walls, polished concrete areas and 25-foot-high ceilings to give kids freedom to smash fruit, bend light, build earthquake-resistant castles and even make pretend mucus.

“We’ve developed a curriculum centered on answering kids’ questions,” said Campbell, the father of 5-year-old Zara and 7-month-old Elan. “Our job is to use hands-on science to engage kids.”

“We call one of our subject areas ‘How Stuff Works,’ ” Campbell said. “The kids learn what’s inside of a cushion, and they make hard cushions with beads and soft ones of foam.”

The Chicago initiative coincides with a report issued last week calling for improving the nation’s school science curriculum by concentrating on core themes and problem solving. The National Research Council’s 282-page report will form the basis of a new set of science-education standards.

Aurelius Raines II, an Auburn-Gresham resident who teaches science, math, art and Spanish at the Cambridge School of Chicago, was impressed when he watched Campbell lead a three-hour-long Saturday session at the KIPP Ascend Charter School on Chicago’s West Side.

The session challenged the kids in various ways to drop an egg without breaking it.

“In the final stage, each set of materials, such as a bag of feathers, cost an imaginary $1,000, and the kids had a total budget of $1,000,” Raines said. “They had to figure out how to make a contraption to keep the eggs safe while doing it on a budget like the guys at NASA. That was very impressive.”

Raines wants his sons — 10-year-old Aurelius III and 8-year-old Zahi — to understand the scientific method at a young age and to experience science as an investigative exercise.

“If you teach children the fundamentals and give them an immersive environment, their test scores automatically rise,” said Raines, whose older son attends the KIPP Charter School and whose younger son goes to Masters Academy.

It took time, analysis and experience before Campbell decided to act.

Campbell discovered that he loved teaching while pursuing his master’s degree in electrical engineering at Stanford University. But he decided to first hone his technological and entrepreneurial skills — designing microprocessors and building optical networking systems at Intel, Lucent and two Silicon Valley startups. Campbell obtained his MBA at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business and spent five years investing more than $1 billion in private companies as a director at Prudential Capital Group’s office in Chicago.

The experiences taught Campbell the intricacies of venture-capital financing and how to work as part of a team among strong-willed people.

At the same time, he yearned to solve a significant problem and still enjoy the freedom of an entrepreneur like his dad, Milton Campbell, a Detroit dentist whose patients included civil rights activist Rosa Parks and former Detroit Mayor Coleman Young.

He and his business partner parsed 68 business ideas and strategized with experts before deciding to open the Kids Science Labs.

He raised $550,000 in a March private placement from friends, colleagues and extended family to start the for-profit venture. Campbell aims to open 250 learning centers nationwide in the next 10 years at a cost of $50 million.

While Chicago boasts world-renowned museums and a PNC “Grow Up Great” initiative that supports museum programs for underserved preschoolers, Campbell sees the need for his labs’ everyday curricula.

Children’s education experts agree. “The way we learn best is by human interaction and by practicing, and yes, 2-year-olds have language, lots of questions and are curious about their world,” said Pamela High, chair of the early childhood committee of the American Academy of Pediatrics in Elk Grove Village.


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