Kudos For Project Exploration?

Video:  Chicago Magazine has named Gabrielle Lyon, who founded Project Exploration, one of its Chicagoans of the year:  "The organization has served more than 1,000 students in middle school and high school, and today it has an annual budget of about $1.8 million." Sounds nice - but relatively small given the size of CPS.  Ever seen the program at work?  Got anything to say about it?  You know what to do.


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  • Project Exploration is TRULY leading the way in regard to quality STEM programming in out of school time. On the surface, you are correct that the overall number of students served seems low when compared to the size of the CPS student population. However, Project Exploration is all about quality vs quantity. When dealing with students, particularly those from struggling communities, personal connections and mentorship are the basis for meaningful learning, this is what PE is all about. Their model has been acclaimed nationwide from other non for profits to the White House. It is my hope that as PE and organizations like it continue to grow, that their model becomes scalable. The publishing of their 10 year longitudinal study cites AMAZING statistics in regard to the sustainable success their students achieve after leaving PE to go onto 4 yr colleges and careers in science fields. Again, you are correct, PE does not serve 1,000's of students each year but in fairness, they are not making hamburgers, they creating the next generation of thinkers, innovators, leaders and scientists. Thanks for the discussion points and cheers to all those working to give the students of Chicago a meaningful education.

  • I am a molecular geneticist, educator and mentor, and I can tell you that what Project Exploration is doing is truly extraordinary. Their ability to engage traditionally underrepresented students in science and mathematics by giving them first-class access to real research experiences with real scientists is truly incredible. That kind of customized approach, which requires the participation of scientists as well as students, may mean that the number of students does not equal the total number of students in CPS. However, the reach of PE goes far beyond the classroom, enabling students to access the lab and field. The growth of the program, and the numerous success stories of its students, is a testimony to the need that PE is fulfilling, and the program's success in doing so. As students discover the true wonder of scientific inquiry - and their ability to participate in it - they develop a passion and confidence that drives them into STEM professions and impacts their lives well beyond PE's walls. They awaken to their own possibilities. PE provides students with role models and mentors who stick with them throughout their education, which is a critical component of real student success in STEM.

    I could cite all of the literature that tells us that research experiences have a powerful impact on students' engagement in science and mathematics, but that's boring. Just listen to the students' stories, and take a look at PE's (mind-blowing) data from the past ten years of their work, and I think the question answers itself. At a time when fewer and fewer students are choosing STEM majors and careers, I think that the efforts of PE, and programs like it, deserve nothing but our applause.

  • Alexander has a point, in 2011 there were a total of 199,741 CPS students in grades 6-12 on the 20th day of school. Project Exploration if it served 1,000 student was effectively providing services to only 0.5% of the students in the targeted grade levels.

    Statistically speaking it is reasonable to say that very few CPS students are getting access to the true wonder of scientific inquiry provided by the project and if it is as excellent as it appears to be that is a great tragedy.

    Rod Estvan

  • As a 2009 Junior Paleontologist I would like to say that Project Exploration is an AMAZING program. PE not only educates students about science but it also opens up many doors for all of its students. When I was given the opportunity to join the program I was a high school sophomore with dreams of attending college. After the one month program with PE, I realized how much power I really had in regards to my future. PE thaught me that by being persistent I could make any thing happen. PE knew my desire to attend college so they nominated me for the Posse Foundation scholarship. I am now a student at Trinity College in Hartford CT and a Posse Scholar thanks to Project Exploration. The relatively small size of the program makes it that much better. PE staff members as well as Gabrielle Lyon, know most if their students by name, which makes a HUGE impact on each and every one of their students.

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    There is no way to overstate the importance of community outreach in the name of education- in a city where only half of our students are graduating High School. Especially when over 90% of the kids that participate in Project Exploration's programs not only FINISH high school but go on to college. I know because I was one of those kids. Under-represented students are traveling abroad to study in the field, serving on Project Exploration's board of directors, and communicating with press on new discoveries at national geographic HQ. This is truly a world class program, even if their budget is a mere 1.8 million. Also, a significant portion of those high school graduates go on to major in STEM fields. This is a much needed organization in a nation that is not quite keeping up with with other nations in terms of education. Let's hope there are more cities with programs like these in the future.

  • As a follow up - It would be fabulous for every CPS student to engage in PE's programs. I make a donation every year to help the program grow in its reach and scope. If people are as concerned as I am about making sure that more students get access to these programs, perhaps they might be interested in making a donation too? It's one thing to talk about the issues, it's another to change them. http://www.projectexploration.org/donate/

  • As a staff person, I think the small number is what makes the student experience meaningful. I was a Chicago Public School student who participated in programs that served thousands of CPS students annually but no one knew my name. Not to say that my experience in these programs weren't amazing but I didn't feel like I had an ally, or made a significant contribution to a community, or even felt valued as a person. One of the things that students consistently say they value is the family feeling that they receive from the organization. We recently had our annual event where 80 current and previous students came out and provided personal testimonies about their involvement with us over the years. Many stated that staff knew their name, their stories, and cared about them as a person as being instrumental to their continued participation in Project Exploration.
    Coupling that personal and meaningful relationship with science is what makes Project Exploration special. When students attend programs with scientists we want them to be able to have a conversation. Students wear name tags so that the scientists can address them by name and begin to start to build a relationship. This is easier to do in a small intimate setting. Sometimes these scientists encounters lead to greater opportunities such as; internships in their labs, help on a science fair project, or even serving as a mentor. How amazing is that for a student to call a scientist they met in a session and say "Hi, I met you yesterday we spoke about polymers. Can you help me with a question that I had for class?" and to have the scientist respond with "I remember you."
    To sum all of this up I would like to close with a student story. A few seconds ago I was on the phone with one of our alums. Dantawn, who may post later, was in our programs when he was a freshman in high school. He traveled to the west and discovered fossils with a group of 13 other CPS students. Since then he has served as a team leader on this same expedition and then in college he became the Teaching Assistant. A few summers ago he informed me that because of his experience with another staff member and having the opportunity to travel to the west he wanted to pursue Environmental Engineering in graduate school. The phone call that we just had was to inform me: 1. That he has started his first class in Environmental Engineering today and he loves it! and 2. He wants to give back to the organization that has given him so much that he is working on how to create a new program to reach students. Who knew seven - eight years ago that a student from Englewood that referred to his former self as a "screw-up" would grow to not only love but pursue science and want to encourage others to do the same.
    I can only dream that I could return to my prior high school programs and know there is someone there who knows me. And know me not just as a participant but know who I truly am.

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    I do not think that the researcher of this post really understands that way PE has impacted my life, as well as dozens of other CPS students within the Chicago area. As a Dinosaur Giant, intern, blogger, and co-creator of BSPE (best science program evah) I know that they have made my life more enriched. They have opened up so many opportunities for me throughout my school, work, and personal life. They not only help us within the science world but PE and there entire staff is there for any of us students at any given time about anything. Seeing us make it to the White House and President Obama recognizing one of PEs programs as well as seeing all the great work that they do, I feel that that shows the amount of dedication and impact they have on us students.

  • To a degree it is amazing to read the comments about this program, but it is equally amazing that commenters lack any understanding of cost factoring for bringing a program such as PE up to scale for a school district the size of CPS. Simply put, if for $1.8 million the program can only provide services to 0.5% of CPS students in grades 6-12 it would cost around $36 million to provide services to just 10% of CPS students in these grades. If we assume some type of cost savings based on scaling up, maybe $30 million for 10% of the students.

    To even provide PE to 50% of students in these grades it could cost around $150 million a year. That is not realistic, and I would argue that the program's model and cost structure is a problem. I would also suggest that given the cost factor of the program using a fund raising model to bring it anywhere near up to scale is not possible.

    This program based on the current cost factoring can not drive STEM in a school district as large as Chicago. The program seems great, but an urban school district like Chicago which faces frozen funding from the state for at least three years based on budget estimates from Springfield, and probably reduced funding from the Federal government too simply can't bring it up to scale.

    Rod Estvan

  • So what's the budget for STEM in the district? If PE were to replace the present science curriculum, wouldn't this be a worthy improvement? If you build writing and math around this, this would be a formidable core. (Of course, I admit scaling up something like this is equally formidable. How many scientists and engineers would it take? Maybe something like Rahm's CCC-business collaboration would work here.)

    If STEM readiness defines our future, shouldn't we be looking closely at programs such as this, which appear to actually motivate our children to be in STEM fields?

  • In reply to LTwain:

    Um. Well.

    Illinois is next to last in state funding for education. CPS has abrogated its responsibility to fund pensions for over a decade resulting in massive upcoming payments. More money than ever is spent on consultants with less and less money reaching the classroom each year.

    How, pray tell, could CPS possibly expand this PE program to the entire city? Surely, you jest.

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    As one of the original PE students, I feel that I have an obligation to voice my opinion on this article. There is so much about PE that does for their students besides providing an opportunity to learn about science in a hands-on environment. To many students, PE can be considered as a second family, I know I do.

    I started with PE in the summer of 2001, right after I graduated from eighth grade. I was one of a handful of students who had the opportunity to take part in something that kids could only dream about, PE’s Summer Science program. I was able to spend two weeks at the University of Chicago learning about genetics, biomechanics, paleontology, geology, astronomy, and basic technology with experts in each field. After those two weeks, I knew that I had become a part of something that was going to stick with me for the rest of my life.

    Since then I have had the opportunity to take part in the Advanced Paleontologists, Dinosaur Giants Team Leader, Junior Paleontologists teaching assistant, Science Teacher Field Institute teaching assistant, and have spoken at countless PE events. If someone told me I would have all these opportunities after that summer, I would have called them a liar. It’s been over ten years since I first got involved with PE and I don’t find myself leaving them anytime soon.

    I’m currently going back to school to become a high school history teacher. I’m also working on starting my own nonprofit organization that helps students that have a passion for the arts. I could easily be making an obnoxious amount of money working in the IT industry, as a business mogul, or even a lawyer, but I’d rather help others the same way that PE has helped me.

    You can easily argue that PE only reaches 0.5% of the entire CPS system, but if you track how many students they reached from 1999 until now, the growth is EXPONENTIAL. PE may only be reaching a small number of students at the moment but isn’t that better than reaching no students at all?

  • Project Exploration does fantastic work engaging underrepresented youth in science. Though the research could be stronger, there is some evidence to indicate it has increased participants' college enrollment, completion and eventual entry into STEM careers. The city found the money for After School Matters and a June evaluation showed no evidence it had any impact on participants' job skills or academic performance. It costs about $25 million to run. Maybe Rahm might think about reallocating the funds for that into an expansion of PE?

  • So based on a couple of quantitative analyses of ASM and PE you want to totally eliminate ASM and bring PE to a scale that it has not yet seen? Surely you see why this is a problematic argument.

    I'm sure we can get plenty of student testimonials for ASM, if we'd like. Also, as important as STEM may be, don't discount the effect that the arts can have on an individual student, a community, or a nation. Maybe we need to stop assuming all of our problems can be solved with technology or a "globally competitive economy" and look at things from another perspective.

    But, Rod, these students have a point. If the money for PE is coming funds that likely would otherwise be unavailable to CPS students, why make the fuss about it being unscalable? The real question is why doesn't Northwestern have a similar program? UIC? Columbia College runs a cancer research lab dedicated for CPS students. The Botanic Garden has a nice program called Science First. What is Rush doing in terms of mentorship programs? How about the National Parks/ Indiana Dunes? CPS, as a large urban district, must encourage other institutional partners if it is to provide the best possible education for all its students.

  • As can be seen by fiscal collapse of Hull House, not for profit organizations are under extreme fiscal pressure. I know the not for profit I work for has to spend major time and money to run an enrichment program for CPS students with disabilities that serves only small numbers of high school aged students. The program has one full time staff person, two interns, and some times up to three trained personal assistants for students with significant disabilities.

    We simply could not expect to get the kind of money raised to scale up to even 10% of disabled high school students in the city. Quality programs like PE, and I don't see anyone arguing that it is not a quality program, aren't cheap.

    The suggestion that Universities create research based programs for CPS students is also difficult. The University of Illinois at Champaign where my oldest daughter is a senior has programs such as you describe for its undergraduates and they get paid a small amount for acting as research assistants during the summer. The competition for these slots is high and the quality of students they get is very high. Given the cuts the University has faced it has struggled to keep such programs at all.

    If we are looking at research hospitals to open programs for CPS students then we have to also look at the decline in dollars coming to these hospitals from the Federal government for medical research and their attempt to make up the difference via private fund raising. Should they be working with CPS students when currently they have graduate students lining up to take even the most menial research tasks.

    Five years ago CPS shut down an enrichment program for 7 and 8 grade students who one day a week took high school level science and math classes at Northeastern IL University and were granted high school credit for the classes. It was a great program, but ongoing funding could not be found even for the relatively small numbers of students selected by the CPS office of gifted and talented students.

    It is possible if CPS established a small group of top shelf fund raisers they could expand the PE model, but the type of people they would need to raise money do not come cheap and I can already hear the complaints about the salaries that would be required. Even with these type of people and going to multiple entities it is very unlikely a significant number of CPS students could get access to a quality program like PE.

    Rod Estvan

  • In reply to Rodestvan:

    Rod, NE Illinois University has a total endowment of $2.5 million, according to wikipedia. Rush University has an endowment about 200 times that- nearly half a billion dollars. And Northwestern University has an endowment of 14 times that of Rush University, at $7 billion.

    I am not trying to suggest that CPS have anything to do with the funding sources for science mentorship programs. As far as I know, there is no line item in the CPS budget for Project Exploration. It is paid for independently. NSF, NIH, DARPA, and other federally-funded research programs, as well as the private endowments of these non-governmental institutions can and do fund enrichment programs for CPS students. Let's encourage this and celebrate it! While undergraduates may have trouble getting part time research positions in research labs in today's funding environment, I am not imagining CPS students competing for 20-hour/week positions cleaning glassware and running routine experiments. Certainly I am not picturing CPS students replacing the work of graduate students (until, of course, the CPS students make it to graduate school themselves). However dire the funding environment for medical and scientific research, there are literally 1000s of graduate students doing exactly this kind of research living in and around Chicago today. Every one of them should be encouraged to help inspire (especially disadvantaged, disabled, low-income) CPS students to pursue STEM fields.

    I do appreciate your shedding light on the dire fiscal state of CPS as well as many non-profits throughout the city, and certainly don't want to minimize the financial struggles of CPS or those pertaining to your organization's efforts to improve the lives of disabled children. You deserve more government funding, and I hope it is forthcoming.

    But I will continue to celebrate independently-financed enrichment opportunities for my students. I don't see the issue with encouraging more of these opportunities. Again- opportunities that are NOT funded with CPS money, but independently.

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    You seriously added a question mark? Who are you to question Project Exploration's Kudos? Project exploration deserves every award, grant, and help they received and more. As a Project Exploration student and employee that question just hurt my heart. The work PE does is beyond measure. They are consistent mentors, teachers, friends, and a second family. They are always there through every step, and change in your life. Once apart of PE you are always apart of PE. I was sixteen when PE became apart of my life and they are still apart of my life 10 years later. PE is not like other programs where you’re apart of it and once you graduate high school it's over. No PE is loyal to you as we are to them no matter what. What program do you know that loves their kids so much that they never let go? You can't think of any, so stop trying! 95% of PE students have graduated, or are on track to graduate. 50% of these students are enrolled in a four-year institution, or have already graduated. 60% are pursuing, or have already received, degrees in science, technology, engineering, or math (STEM); and 32% hold science-related employment. Beyond the facts Project Exploration is a life changing environment. I was a shy quiet kid, who lived in Englewood and I needed somewhere to escape. PE was my escape. PE gave me a voice I didn't know I had. They made me love writing more then ever before. Writing about my experiences in a journal and sharing with friends and scientist, that was important to me. That helped me to speak out and have confidence. I always loved science and they just put the icing on the cake and gave me opportunities I would not have as a regular CPS student. Through Project Exploration they help push you down the path to your dreams. In Englewood a lot of dreams have been deferred due to economics, geography, and not having the right social environment. Because of PE and programs like it a dream is never deferred, but accomplished beyond your heart’s desire. I’m grateful for Project Exploration, and they are truly changing the face of science.

  • Thank you, Alexander and Rod and everyone who contributed to this thread, for such a thoughtful conversation.

    I recently left CPS to become Project Exploration’s first CEO, so I have a deep appreciation for the tension between quality and quantity and the funding constraints that face us all. Even when I had the comparably vast resources of CPS and some DOE funds at my disposal to run drop-out prevention and out-of-school-time programs, it was a David and Goliath situation, with the need always overwhelming the supply.

    As the posts from our students, partners, and staff make clear (and I agree, Rod, the testimonials and passion from our students and supporters is amazing), the Project Exploration model of engaging students in real science side-by-side with practicing scientists - and building those relationships over the long haul - is a powerful combination.

    A key part of my mandate is to expand our reach and serve more students, but we must do this in a way that doesn’t dilute or dismantle the quality of the relationships and the learning experiences and environments that have many times been life-altering for our students.

    As we evolve our growth strategy at PE, our goal will be to grow carefully and incrementally, and we will certainly never set our sights on growing big enough to become the complete solution for the entire district.

    The real conversation is not around scaling PE, but around how a community of like-minded organizations can join forces with the city and with caring and committed professionals of all stripes to mentor students in an authentic way; work with them to pose, investigate, and test hypotheses; and usher them into the full potential of their young lives by rolling up our sleeves and helping them dive into the world. ASM is part of this community as are Mikva Challenge and Umoja Student Development Corporation, to name a couple of my personal favorites.

    Don’t dismiss programs like Project Exploration because they are difficult to scale. Use your soapbox to advocate for and demand that attention be paid to relationship-driven experiential learning as CPS expands the school day and invests in STEM.

    Paige Ponder

  • Replying to anonymous--of course I am not really suggesting the city scrap After School Matters and replace it with a scaled-up Project Exploration. I'm just responding to the skepticism that the money is not there to do large-scale work on STEM. Money is always there when there is political will.

  • I am proud to be a part of Project Exploration. For the last two summers I have experienced things I would never have learned in school. Programs like Dinosaur Giants, Science Giants, Science Digest and Junior Palentologist are a few of the programs PE provides for students. With PE I am exposed to science as it relates to my everyday life. PE makes science interesting and enjoyable. The only question mark that should be associated with PE is why is it not available to all students?

  • for the same reason that the Lamborghini Reventon isn't available to all...money!

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