By Steve Koppes
Photo courtesy of Project Exploration

That experience was really phenomenal in my life because I came out of my shell.”
—Kaitlin Judkins
Project Exploration student

Kaitlin Judkins stubbornly resisted the first suggestions that she become involved in Project Exploration. After all, the eighth-grader was more interested in cheerleading than in joining a scientific expedition to the American West.

“I’m a girly girl. Me, climbing mountains? I could never do that,” Judkins recollected for an audience of 120 at a recent community breakfast for Project Exploration, a non-profit organization devoted to scientific outreach and education. Judkins did go on the expedition, her first trip out of state, and wound up climbing mountains in the badlands of Montana.

“That experience was really phenomenal in my life because I came out of my shell,” said Judkins, a former University of Chicago Charter School student who recently graduated from DePaul University. She is also a member of Project Exploration’s board of directors and aspires to found her own non-profit.

Judkins is among the 1,000-plus students that Project Exploration has served since 1999, when UChicago paleontologist Paul Sereno and alumna Gabrielle Lyon, AB’94, AM’94, founded the non-profit science education organization focusing on minority youth and girls. Judkins’ smoothly delivered, humor-laced comments provided vivid accompaniment to a 10-year retrospective study of its work that Project Exploration released at the May 12 gathering.

Project Exploration commissioned the study, Lyon says, because the organization wanted to move evaluations of its program from anecdotes to data. Further, “We wanted to understand what mattered to students because we wanted to shape our vision for the future.”

Under the microscope

The study, funded by the Noyce Foundation and conducted by researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, focused on two goals: “First, to describe PE’s influence on its past participants or its alumni; and two, to explain the organizational practices and strategies that support science learning and traditionally under-represented youths in science,” says Juna Snow, a research and evaluation specialist at Berkeley’s Lawrence Hall of Science.

The results validated Project Exploration’s personalized, out-of-school time approach to science education for urban teenagers. Among the findings, collected via an 88-question, web-based survey and follow-up telephone interviews with some of the respondents:

  • 95 percent of Project Exploration alumni have graduated high school or are on track to graduate, which is nearly double the overall rate for students in Chicago Public Schools.
  • 60 percent of the alumni are enrolled in a four-year college, pursuing degrees in fields related to science, technology, engineering or mathematics (STEM).
  • 60 percent of the alumni who graduated from college graduated with a STEM-related degree.

“Ninety-three percent of the respondents agreed that they received new perspectives about their options in education, for work, for their life, during their time in Project Exploration,” Snow says.

Project Exploration serves 250 middle and high school students annually, in partnership with approximately 40 Chicago Public Schools across the city. “Our kids are CPS kids,” Lyon says. “Eighty-five percent of our students come from low-income, African American and Latino families. Seventy-four percent are girls.”

Relationship- and experienced-based learning

Lyon and Sereno predicated PE upon two premises, which remain central to the organization today. “Firstly, that learning is based on relationships, and secondly, that real experiences are really the best experiences,” Lyon says.

“We started out by targeting students who were open-minded and curious, irrespective of their grades. In fact, if they were struggling in school, all the better, and we developed strategies to actually reach out just specifically to those students,” she says.

Project Exploration’s earliest offerings were the Sisters4Science and Junior Paleontologists programs, which continue. These and other programs last year earned Project Exploration a Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics, and Engineering Mentoring from President Obama.

Accolades from industry

Industry representatives, too, recognize the importance of Project Exploration’s work, including executives at Motorola Solutions Foundation, a longtime sponsor. As the charitable arm of a company of scientists and engineers, foundation director Matthew Blakely says, “We understand the need to inspire the next generation of scientists and scientific explorers and we think that Project Exploration is one of the perfect programs to do that.”

As Project Exploration moves into the future, Lyon and her team plan to establish a network of partnerships and organizations that will share their approach to youth science programs, and to build a youth science center that will serve as a national demonstration and learning site.

At the same time, the organization will double the number of students it serves from 250 to 500 and develop a series of pathways programs that let students discover, explore, and pursue science. “The work of changing the face of science is as much about helping students find passion for the world as it is about discovering the wonders of how science works,” Lyon says.