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‘I see myself in these kids’: Why education is key to Aurora, Illinois’ smart city concept

Aurora, Illinois, Chief Information Officer Michael Pegues (Credit: City of Aurora)

Michael Pegues credits his mother with instilling in him a love of technology in his youth and encouraging him to pursue a STEM-based career.

“I was growing up in high school trying to make a decision in terms of what I wanted to do. And my mom kind of pushed me into technology,” said Pegues, now chief information officer for Aurora, Illinois. “I remember it was 1984. She had bought me this Commodore 64 [computer]. It was 500 bucks, but probably the equivalent to a $1,500 computer today. That got me interested in computers.

“Now, my mom didn’t have a high school degree, but she got a Ph.D. in common sense. She didn’t know much about it, but she just had that maternal instinct to say, ‘That’s the area you need to focus on.’ So, her pushing me and nurturing me into that field basically led to me working in Fortune 100 companies, and also coming back to the city of Aurora where I grew up and becoming the CIO.”

Closing the digital divide

As Aurora’s chief information officer, Pegues has made it a priority to build out its Smart Aurora long-term strategic program. As part of its strategy, the city is implementing data analytics to regulate traffic signals and water utility management and create smart parking decks to make it easier for motorists to park. The city also plans to expand its existing 129 miles of fiber-optic cable to 645 miles — to attract new business and to help close the digital divide. 

As a means to achieve the latter goal, the city of Aurora has embraced STEAM-based education — science, technology, engineering, arts and math — in a program for more than 750 students in first through sixth grades who fall on the wrong side of the digital divide. The program is administered through the city’s information technology department and youth services division, in partnership with TinkRworks — a K-8 STEAM education provider based in Hinsdale, Illinois. A program that began as a summer pilot for 50 students has been expanded to four free sessions year-round.

There are two components: the Art Alive course for first through third grades and the Rover Bot course for fourth through sixth grades. In the Art Alive course, which teaches students to code their own electric art, students attach electronics to customized wooden facades to make them play various sounds. The Rover Bot course provides in-depth instruction in motors, sensors, LEDs and Arduino minicomputers — culminating in the development of fully functional robots.

TinkRworks designed the curriculum for the two Aurora components, while the city’s IT department provides tech equipment and high-speed internet service to six learning centers across the community: the APS Institute, Main Baptist Church, Eastwood Community Center, Randall West Community Center, Sacred Heart Church, and the ARM Mobile Tech Center.

Parents must submit applications for their children through a special online portal, with priority given to households with an annual income below 80% of the area’s median. Applicants must live in or attend school in Aurora.

‘It’s kind of my story’

For Pegues, who is African American, Aurora’s STEAM program is a passion project. He quoted statistics that stated that as of 2020, 67% of tech companies are made up of less than 5% of Black employees. 

“That’s why I take it personal,” Pegues said. “’Cause it’s kind of my story. I see myself in these kids. Right now, STEM programs are for the privileged. They’re pretty expensive. But it shouldn’t be a privilege. This stuff should be basic curriculum in school. You know, 75% of all jobs require STEM skills. So why aren’t the schools baking that into their curriculum? That’s why I’m committed to making this something that’s available for the disenfranchised.”