By Rachel Cromidas, third-year in the College
Photos by Jason Smith

When Sara ElShafie was asked to explain “scientific method” to a classroom of teenagers, she started talking about Supercrocs. They’re the prehistoric crocodiles whose fossil remains were discovered by University of Chicago professor Paul Sereno on an expedition to Niger in 2000.

“You’ve seen the Supercroc skull—it’s 6 feet long,” she said. “We don’t have the entire animal, but Dr. Sereno was able to say that it was probably 40 feet long. How did he do that?”

The group of 14 Chicago Public Schools students receiving a crash course in paleontology as part of Project Exploration’s Junior Paleontologists field program was silent. “Sereno studied measurements of living crocodiles,” ElShafie said, and he found a ratio between head size and body length that he was able to apply to the Supercroc. “You have to have solid evidence like this. And only then can you present your data to other scientists,” she explained. “I love that fact.”

According to ElShafie, a third-year in the College studying biology, students first must learn the importance of scientific assumptions before getting their hands dirty as part of the nonprofit science program called Project Exploration.

Project Exploration programs for middle and high school Chicago Public Schools students met on the University campus throughout the summer. The Junior Paleontologists is a three-week program that starts in Chicago and culminates with a weeklong expedition with researchers at the Mammoth Site in Hot Springs, S.D. After the summer portion of the program, Junior Paleontologists participate in Project Exploration science programs and mentoring—and stay in touch with budding scientists like ElShafie—year round.

Sereno, Professor in Organismal Biology and Anatomy, co-founded Project Exploration in 1999, with his wife, Gabrielle Lyon, AB,’94, AM,’94, after realizing the science announcements that were traveling around the world were barely reaching students at area elementary schools like Fiske Elementary, where Lyon was teaching.

Since 1999, Project Exploration has brought nearly 1,000 Chicago minority youth and girls together with scientists from around the country in after-school, summer and weekend programs. Many of those programs have launched from the University of Chicago campus.

Learning by Doing

Sereno and Lyon share a passion for teaching unconventionally. Lyon credits her years as a teaching assistant in the University’s Neighborhood Schools Program for showing her the value of “learning by doing.”

“I was personally interested in public education, school reform, social justice, and equity. My work-study job [at NSP],” she said, “gave me hands-on, real-life experience working alongside real teachers in a school.”

To the teaching duo, the hallmark of Project Exploration is its ability to inspire teenagers with hands-on experiences alongside caring adults, many of whom are scientists.

“A lot of these kids will travel outside of Chicago or Illinois for the first time through our programs. In the Junior Paleontologist program, students actually excavate and study real fossils, basically participating in a formal dig program as guest interns,” Sereno said.

ElShafie said volunteering for Project Exploration has helped her realize her love for teaching, and she wants to pursue academia after graduation.

She said the program’s hands-on activities and mentorship make the program effective. “I have no idea where these kids are coming from or what their grades were before this program, but it doesn’t matter: When they come back [from South Dakota], I know they will see the world differently and have a sense of purpose in their lives.”

ElShafie is one of dozens of enthusiastic undergraduates, graduates and faculty scientists who have participated in Project Exploration programs, trainings and outreach efforts in the past nine years. Many of them get connected with Project Exploration through Sereno’s Fossil Lab and the University Community Service Center.

Journaling the Fossil Hunt

Though Rey Alcala had only been on campus one week, his field journal already held pages of notes about the mammoth site, where he and his peers would later be digging for bones.

“We put a big emphasis on journaling,” said Kristin Atman, Project Exploration program director. “These kids will only have five days at the site to record in their journals what they see. We want them to build skills like reading, writing and sharing what they observe.”

Sereno and Lyon are sketching out larger plans to expand the program and establish a permanent community center, where local youths, families and University faculty can come together to make discoveries.

“It would be like a community center focused on science and science activities,” Sereno said. “As the South Side continues to develop, Project Exploration can be a real bridge between the students, their communities and the University community. It’s so clear that this personalized approach has a huge impact, and this kind of model doesn’t yet exist anywhere else in the country.”

Originally published on September 28, 2009.