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Member Spotlight: Project Exploration

  • Utsav Gandhi

Project Exploration is one of our flagship partners for Remake Learning Days CHI, and we talked to Janeicia (Neicy) Williams, Natasha Smith-Walker, Sarah Tinsman, and Linh Hoang for this interview. CLX is grateful for their partnership and support!

1. What is Project Exploration’s mission? If possible, provide an example of programming that is emblematic of that mission.

    PE Mission: Project Exploration creates transformative learning experiences, pathways, and a community for youth underrepresented in STEM. Our specific focus is on low-income students, students of color, and young women, allowing them to explore STEM careers and equip them with the necessary skills, practices, and mindset needed for lifelong learning.

    Since 1999, Project Exploration (PE) has worked to change the face of science. With equity at our core, we serve youth from communities historically underrepresented in the STEM fields and recruit students who are curious and interested in STEM but may face challenges accessing high-quality programs, such as academic prerequisites or program fees. Project Exploration makes STEM education accessible through:

    • Our out-of-school time Youth-Science Pathway (YSP) programs, which empower and mentor underrepresented minority youth.
    • Our community building strategies for schools, students, and families through leadership in the Chicago STEM Pathways Cooperative (STEM Co-op).

    Our Youth-Science Pathway (YSP) programs deeply engage students in authentic STEM experiences alongside STEM mentors who serve as role models. Through YSP programs and relationships, youth develop critical social and emotional skills, such as self-confidence, STEM identity, collaboration, communication, and leadership abilities.

    Project Exploration's Youth-Science Pathway (YSP) programs leverage out-of-school time to provide access to STEM education for students through our school-based, - West Side STEM Learning Center, and STEM@home program models. Our school-based model runs in-person at partnering schools on the south and west sides of Chicago. Communities are selected based on our 2012 STEM Landscape survey that identified STEM learning gaps. The West Side STEM Learning Center (SLC), a community hub and makerspace, amplifies the value of STEM learning on the West Side of Chicago by providing youth with high-quality STEM programs and internships integrating family and community outreach. STEM@home, our virtual program model, was intentionally built to strengthen in-person programs while meeting the need for remote learning opportunities due to COVID-19. STEM@home allows PE to create STEM learning opportunities for youth regardless of school closures or transportation.

    The Chicago STEM Pathways Cooperative is a collective impact strategy, engaging stakeholders in Chicago’s STEM ecosystem who work together to address inequities in the STEM learning continuum, especially in underrepresented communities. Stakeholders share cross-sector knowledge, create strong collaborations, and develop solutions collectively across the city to impact STEM OST programming.

    2. How and why did Project Exploration come to be involved with Remake Learning Days?

    Project Exploration's mission is to serve underrepresented youth in STEM. As the backbone organization for the Chicago STEM Pathways Cooperative, Chicago's STEM ecosystem, we saw Remake Learning Days (RLD) as an opportunity to connect Chicago's youth with quality and meaningful learning experiences. In understanding certain challenges and barriers, RLD was/is a tangible source for resources in the work we're doing to address inequities in STEM education across the STEM continuum, as well as in the OST space, in general.

    3. Looking back to 2019: Can you share a story of something you particularly enjoyed? What were some pleasant surprises? What were you happy to see in terms of impact?

    What we did at the SLC proved to be innovative. We had multiple partners present such as Honeywell, a larger corporation, that had multiple activities, including a chemical reactions activity. We also had a candle-making activity led by the owner of Liberty Outfitters, a small candle business. Simultaneously, we had the Bonfire & Cypher at LaFollette Park, once again, revealing the strength and importance of partnerships. There were young people all over Austin, enjoying themselves, with family and/or friends. They learned new things and expressed themselves in new ways. Most importantly, youth were introduced to new opportunities, thereby helping us reach our - goal of amplifying opportunities and connecting them to youth in Austin and across Chicago.


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    . Every organization has had to pivot in terms of how it offers its services and programming over the last year, for better or worse. How did you approach the strategic planning of RLD 2021 with the ongoing pandemic in mind?

    In 2020, in the face of the coronavirus pandemic, Project Exploration strategically and sustainably built STEM@home virtual program opportunities to supplement existing programs. STEM@home seeks to bring and incentivize STEM learning opportunities not only in the afterschool space but also at home. As we continued to develop positive and productive outlets for youth during these difficult times we also continued to build upon our network virtually in two ways:

    1. As a leader in the Austin My CHI, My Future work, we have a deeper understanding of the landscape of the Austin neighborhood in order to better engage youth, families, and other community members.
    2. STEM Co-op: Pulling in STEM providers for Spring Break. The Chicago STEM Pathways Coop is a Project Exploration initiative that looks at the STEM learning ecosystem as whole, identifying various stakeholders and creating pathways for underrepresented students to pursue STEM at any stage of their life.

    After reflecting on COVID-19 best practices of one of our community partners, the Chicago Park District, we began to plan RLD 2021 with the hope of bringing kids face to face for activities. As we leveraged our relationships with other organizations and institutions, we were able to craft 15 in-person opportunities to engage youth in a socially distanced manner.

    5. In what ways do RLD CHI 2021 events specifically broaden engagement of minoritized youth? In a perfect world, how would Chicago remake learning to center equity efforts?

    RLD CHI broadens engagement by allowing access to high-quality programs and activities that minority students typically would not otherwise be able to participate in due to factors such as academic prerequisites or program fees. In a perfect world, it would require true grassroots efforts to establish equity among children and families that are typically underserved. This means we must continue to work to understand the community, our partners, and local institutions like schools and churches in order to ensure that programs and resources are meeting people where they are.

    6. How do the goals RLD CHI 2021 align with those of Project Exploration? Why do you think it's important for Chicago's youth and families to participate this year?

    For twenty years, Project Exploration (PE) has been at the forefront of impacting underserved communities and youth in Chicago. Our expertise is designing and delivering STEM education programs, as well as influencing a city-wide conversation that aims to combat STEM deserts through partnership development and program delivery. Through collaborating with Remake Learning Days and with other Austin-based community organizations and stakeholders, we have learned more about the landscape of this neighborhood in order to better engage youth, families, and other community members. RLD CHI provides us with an opportunity to showcase the work we do all year round. PE programs engage students in authentic STEM experiences, alongside STEM mentors who serve as role models. Similar to the goals of RLD, through our programs and relationships, we create impactful out of school experiences for youth that expose them to activities which help develop critical attributes, including social and emotional skills, an increase in self-confidence, and STEM identity.