Our Vision

Project Exploration’s Next 10 Years of Impact

​New challenges have emerged for low-income students and students of color since the pandemic turned our world upside down.

The academic skill gap between low-income students, students of color, and their peers expanded even further from prior to the pandemic. Inadequate technology, lack of high-speed internet, lower quality e-learning opportunities, and inadequate support for virtual learning have increased the educational debt underrepresented students possess.

We owe these students remediation and skill-based learning, including hands-on tutoring and mentorship, which today’s schools are not able to facilitate. However, out-of school time programs like those of Project Exploration are equipped to meet these needs, and ensure that students may enjoy learning for learning’s sake. This is especially true for STEM programs, which are more important than ever, where students develop capabilities and confidence as problem finders and solvers.

PE’s STEM programs support students like Carter. Growing up in Chicago’s Austin neighborhood, access to high-quality STEM programs was historically limited due to academic prerequisites, program fees, and inadequate access to transportation. Student experiences in science were limited to relatively passive learning opportunities geared to exam achievement. However, Carter is able to exercise his imagination and participate in hands-on design challenges and science experiments during PE Pop-Ups and in his after-school Building Block Club. Gaining confidence in his skills and knowledge as he solves problems alongside his peers and caring STEM mentors, he’ll proudly tell you now that he dreams of being a science teacher. His STEM identity continues to form as he grows in PE’s Youth-Science Pathway (YSP) Programs.

Project Exploration has been committed to ensuring that low-income students, students of color, and girls benefit from free, high-quality STEM learning opportunities since 1999. We remain steadfast in that commitment, especially now when students living in predominantly black and low-income communities, like Carter, face unprecedented barriers to accessing learning environments which can help them close the gaps.

This requires an ambitious strategy, for which we laid the foundation through our work on Project SYSTEMIC, a National Science Foundation funded project in which community members were equipped to identify possible interventions to broaden participation in STEM.

Three community-defined goals emerged from Project SYSTEMIC which will guide PE’s work and next decade of impact.

Goal 1: Drive Demand for STEM

Young people who are not exposed to the wonder and discovery in science and STEM will not demand those opportunities in their education or careers. Leaders in education must provide pathways wherein students can experience, gain confidence in, and pursue STEM from early childhood through young adulthood.

Our strategy to ensure students have exposure to high-quality STEM includes 7 ambitious goals, which will dramatically increase the footprint of PE’s STEM Learning Centers and school-based programs.

Goal 1.1: Expand Youth-Science Pathway Programs

Expand and refocus on target communities for school-based programs – young people living in these neighborhoods experience disproportionately high rates of violence, poverty, and trauma, and the average school in these neighborhoods are under-resourced, and unable to provide the remediation and skill-based learning students need to catch up to their peers and reach their full potential.

  • FY21-22 Targets: Belmont Cragin, Bronzeville, South Lawndale
  • FY23-24 Targets: East and West Garfield Park, Humboldt Park, East and West Englewood
  • FY25-26 Targets: Hermosa, Greater Grand Grossing, Woodlawn, Auburn-Gresham, Washington Park
  • FY27-28 Targets: Brighton Park, Archer Heights, South Shore, Avalon Park, Chatham
  • FY29-30 Targets: West Elsdon, Gage Park, West Lawn, Chicago Lawn, Ashburn
  • FY31-33 Targets: Washington Heights, Roseland, Pullman, Burnside, Calumet Heights, South Chicago
Goal 1.2: Expand place-based model and footprint

Project Exploration’s inaugural STEM Learning Center was established in 2017 on the George Leland Elementary School campus to provide a place-based STEM education model in Chicago’s Austin community. The community hub and makerspace grounds student learning in local culture, heritage, and experiences by integrating family and community outreach, while at the same time leveraging resources and STEM Professionals who serve as mentors from PE’s extensive network of partners from world-recognized STEM organizations, museums, and corporations. The SLC is now a nationally-recognized model, the impact of which we want to replicate to support more of Chicago’s young learners.

Our focus during FY22-27 will be to strengthen and expand PE’s place-based footprint in Austin. STEM Learning Centers (SLC) will include:

  • SLC@Leland Elementary School Campus (K-8) – programs operating will focusing on PE’s astronomy and physics Youth-Science Pathway (YSP) Programs, with particular attention to early childhood learning where K-2 students get excited about STEM and develop their STEM identity.
  • SLC@Bethel New Life (K-8) PE seeks to engage young people at the Bethel New Life (BNL) SLC as agents of change in combating food deserts and food insecurity in Chicago, and expose students to opportunities in medicine and wellness, sustainable food production, urban agriculture, and horticulture programs. As such, BNL will be home to PE’s Medical YSP Programs and Life Science Pathways.
  • SLC@Douglass Career Academy (6-12) – PE’s STEM Learning Center at Douglass will be home to our Engineering and Computer Science Youth Science Pathway Programs, as well as where our Mentorship and Professional Development Programs will operate for older students, young adults, and educators.

At the same time that these programs are being built and strengthened, PE will focus on white papers and replication toolkits wherein like-minded organizations can scale up place-based models in other community areas in which underrepresented students would otherwise lack such high-quality STEM opportunities.

Our focus during FY28-31 will be to replicate our place-based model in North Lawndale.


Goal 1.3: Create Coherent STEM Pathways of Virtual Opportunities via STEM@home

STEM@home emerged in 2020 in the face of the coronavirus pandemic, as Project Exploration strategically and sustainably built virtual program opportunities to supplement existing programs. STEM@home allows PE to create transformative learning experiences for youth underrepresented in STEM regardless of school closures and strikes. Additionally, meeting the needs of students who are notoriously truant, STEM@home seeks to bring and incentivize STEM learning opportunities not only in the afterschool space, but also at home.

Nearly 2 years since STEM@home’s inception, the advantages of continuing virtual programs are clear:

  • Workplace Readiness – as more businesses embrace a virtual workforce, all students need access to opportunities where they can develop skills which can help them be successful in a remote work setting.
  • Preparation for Higher Education – institutions of higher education are undergoing a dramatic transformation, where students don’t necessarily need to be on-campus to benefit from a world-class institution. Our goal is to expose students to diverse learning experiences both in-person and virtually so they can benefit from all the opportunities they will have in higher education in the future.
  • Safety and Transportation Concerns – Prior to the pandemic, we shared concerns with parents and city leaders about the safety of students getting to and from after-school programs. Exacerbated poverty and violence resulting from the pandemic only heighten this concern and necessitate the requirement that we are creative in providing high-quality learning opportunities while prioritizing their safety.
  • Prioritizing Students Who Have Continued Remote Learning – there are Chicago Public School students who still have not returned to classrooms for in-person instruction for any number of reasons. We already know that virtual instruction increased the educational debt with which particularly students at predominantly black and low-income schools are burdened, and these students will continue to fall behind without intervention. These students deserve that support, and we look forward to ensuring a program model which can serve them now and even if/when they return to the classroom remains a priority.
  • Parent Engagement – while PE prioritizes parent engagement in school-based and place-based programs, there has been no better program model that allows parents to engage with the content their students are receiving than STEM@home. With parents and guardians often just off-camera, parent engagement happens naturally with the adults in their lives able to foster that STEM curiosity, identity-formation, and learning outside of programs.

While the demand for virtual STEM programming may fluctuate, Project Exploration will focus on codifying our model and creating replication toolkits through which like-minded organizations and schools can request on-demand kits and deliver their own STEM@home programming. In-network students always benefit from STEM@home programs for free, however, PE also allows students outside of our service network to participate in STEM@home programs as a paid opportunity, wherein the family pays for their STEMkit(s) and often also sponsors the kit cost for target students.

STEM@home programs also include virtual programs which leverage STEAMville, an online platform powered by Northwestern University’s Digital Youth Network and Office of Community Education Partnerships (OCEP) wherein students can explore additional self-led opportunities, , such as those in coding, digital making, and engineering design, which don’t require STEMkits.

As with all PE program opportunities, identifying opportunities for students to build relationships with caring adult mentors and their peers will be prioritized, as well as opportunities wherein virtual program participants can share their work with a public audience.

Target communities for recruitment for STEM@home include, but are not limited to:

  • FY21-22 Targets: East and West Garfield Park, Humboldt Park, East and West Englewood
  • FY23-24 Targets: Hermosa, Greater Grand Grossing, Woodlawn, Auburn-Gresham, Washington Park
  • FY25-26 Targets: Brighton Park, Archer Heights, South Shore, Avalon Park, Chatham
  • FY27-28 Targets: West Elsdon, Gage Park, West Lawn, Chicago Lawn, Ashburn
  • FY29-30 Targets: Washington Heights, Roseland, Pullman, Burnside, Calumet Heights, South Chicago
  • FY31-33 Targets: Remaining high-need Chicago neighborhoods and suburbs

These targets are intentionally aligned with our target neighborhoods for the expansion of school-based programs. Implementing STEM@home programs first, before we deepen our roots with school-based programming, allows us the opportunity to listen and learn from community stakeholders, gauge needs and interests of students within the neighborhoods, as well as assess which schools can most benefit from a school-based program with PE prior to making that investment.

Goal 1.4: Expand Interest In and Awareness of STEM Opportunities via Community Partnership Opportunities
  • Leadership in the Austin CAC and Austin Quality of Life Plan, City-Wide DEI Initiatives and Work Groups
  • My Chi. My Future., PE Pop-Ups/SSD Roadshow, Remake Learning Days, Chicago Connected
  • Provide PE Pop-Ups and/or STEM@home STEMkits at community events, organizations, parks, libraries, and schools
  • Target Neighborhoods include:
    • South Shore
    • CHA Communities
    • Mayoral-Defined Target Communities
Goal 1.5: Lead Student and/or Parent Advisory Council
  • Ensure students and parents have ownership of and provide leadership on curriculum, recruitment, community needs, partnerships, interests, etc.
Goal 1.6: Shore Up Curriculum Development and STEM Pathways
  • Ensure school standards are included in program curriculum (common core, Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS))
  • Ensure skills required by STEM careers are addressed in corresponding STEM pathways
  • Assess in-demand STEM career opportunities in Chicago and beyond, and create academic and career partnerships that align Youth Science Pathways to real-world education and career opportunities, and mentors
    • Trade Programs
    • Associates Programs
    • Bachelors Programs
  • Social Emotional Learning
    • Mental Health
Goal 1.7: Shore Up Datasets and Evaluation Methods
  • Pre-/post- survey evaluation and redress
  • DoS Evaluation and redress
  • Publish Case Study in partnership with Harvard PEAR Institute
  • Define quantitative program goals:
    • Retention rate
    • Unique student growth rate
    • STEM identity and/or skills

Goal 2: Ensure Reflective Human Resources

Students need teachers and mentors who are reflective of them in terms of demographics and experiences. Young people are more likely to develop interest in, pursue, and persist at opportunities, including those in STEM, wherein they see mentors who reflect them also demonstrate passion, expertise, and commitment.

Our vision includes 6 goals to ensure that our K-12 students, PE alumni, and young adults, both whose who are teaching PE programs and those pursuing their own STEM careers, benefit from mentors who are reflective of them.

Goal 2.1: Professional Development and Deployment of STEAMbassadors and Junior STEAMbassadors
  • Create postsecondary apprenticeship STEAMbassadors pathway and opportunity to prepare young people for STEM and teaching careers
  • Create a pre-apprenticeship program for Junior STEAMbassadors (high school juniors and seniors) to play leadership roles in STEM programs
  • Create partnerships with post-secondary institutions to provide credentialing to STEAMbassadors and/or Junior STEAMbassadors which can translate to certificates, associates degrees, or prepare them for trade and/or bachelors programs
Goal 2.2: Strengthen Multigenerational Engagement in PE Programs and Community Knowledge of STEM Opportunities
  • Support of parents in developing their own technical skills via Chicago Connected and like-mind partners
  • Host family nights and open houses to engage parents in hands-on STEM
  • Deploy parent newsletter to ensure parents are connected to programs and can continue to develop STEM skills and knowledge at home
  • Create aligned opportunities for parents to learn about the power of and opportunities within STEM, and to empower them to be advocates for their students
Goal 2.3: Strengthen Alumni Club Participation and Engagement
  • Invite alumni to participate in programs and events as staff, volunteers
  • Ensure alumni are represented in Board and Junior Board
  • Support alumni with mentorship, career, and networking opportunities
Goal 2.4: Support STEM Push Work and Implement Recommendations to Strengthen Support of Pre-College Students Pursuing STEM
  • Work with partners under STEM Push Network to identify the barriers students face in going from Pre-college STEM Programs to postsecondary education and career pursuits
Goal 2.5: Strengthen and Increase Impact of STEM Signing Day and Honoree Network
  • Work with established partners and expand partnerships to provide scholarships for students pursuing postsecondary STEM education
Goal 2.6: Strengthen Volunteer and Mentorship Program
  • Align PE Volunteer Corps to support PE STEM programs and events
    • Recruit from the community, STEM organizations, businesses, and corporations, academia, and STEM teacher and/or professional groups
    • Provide homework help, hands-on STEM engagement, trauma-informed program support, etc. to K-12th graders during program sessions
  • Align PE Mentors with individual students, alumni, and SSD honorees
    • Recruit from senior alumni, STEM organizations, businesses, and corporations, academia, and STEM teacher and/or professional groups.
    • Provide support for resume development, job interviews and application process, college and/or trade program admissions, financial aid direction, networking, internships, navigating college/career life and decisions, etc.
    • 16 (HS Juniors and Seniors) to 24 years old

Goal 3: Prioritize STEM Opportunities Broadly

Science and STEM are not prioritized in local schools, and students of color, low-income students, and girls still face systemic barriers to accessing STEM within Chicago, as well as state- and nation-wide. This priority is encompassed in our vision in seven goals, which include publishing PE’s model and a 10 year longitudinal study of youth outcomes, teacher professional development, and continued local and national leadership to advance STEM education.

Goal 3.1: Provide Proof of PE Model, Codify, and Share Best Practices
  • Publish 20-year retrospective study
  • Publish 30-year retrospective study
  • Publish reports on:
    • Place-based model
    • STEAMbassadors
    • STEM@home/Virtual Programs
Goal 3.2: Strengthen Chicago STEM Pathways Cooperative Leadership and Ecosystem Work
  • Create a public database of ecosystem partners
  • Host working meetings with ecosystem partners to address city-wide barriers in STEM education
  • Lead Chicago STEM landscape surveys; published landscape study at least every 5 years
  • Corral ecosystem partners around addressing barriers identified in landscape studies
Goal 3.3: Leadership and Participation in National Ecosystem Convenings
  • Present best practices at national convenings
  • Participate in national conferences to bring back best practices to incorporate in PE work and infuse into local ecosystems
  • Support nationwide advocacy work and leverage national support in advocacy at local levels for increased STEM opportunities
Goal 3.4: Support Development of STEM Ecosystems External to Chicago
  • Share resources, best practices, and publications
  • Provide mentorship and ensure growing ecosystems are connected to national opportunities and ongoing support
Goal 3.5: Create Professional Learning Community (PE-PLC) for Chicago STEM Educators
  • A small membership fee for members
  • Leverage ecosystem partners for convening content
  • Share best practices, create hands-on opportunities to work with students in an out-of-school environment, etc.
  • Provide letters of support for STEM learning equipment (e.g. DonorsChoose)
Goal 3.6: Provide Professional Development for Schools
  • Develop curriculum and professional development opportunities for teachers in school-based settings
  • Create experiential learning opportunities and events for teachers at STEM Learning Center
  • Recruit for PE-PLC
Goal 3.7: Package and Share PE Programs via STEM in a Box to Communities External to Broader Program Providers via Partnership (e.g. Act NOW, CHA, YMCA)
  • PE-produced classroom kits for high-quality, hands-on STEM experiences for students to utilize in school and out-of-school time settings.
  • Include hands-on student kits, teacher kits, and instructional materials, evaluation tools, etc.
  • Paid or sponsored depending on community
    • An application process for the sponsored program to include a partnership with the local community college to identify STEAMbassadors to undergo PE-led onboarding

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