Coming Full Circle: Project Exploration’s Impact on STEM Professional, Heather King

“It is amazing when things come full circle. I am so glad to be reconnecting with Project Exploration!” Heather King is Mission Measurement’s Director of Education Research. Mission Measurement synthesizes hundreds of research and evaluation studies to create a standard language for social impact programs to talk about what they do and why they do it. Heather leads all research efforts related to the Education frameworks. Her goal is to help organizations working toward the same goal to align on a common “language” to talk about what they hope to accomplish, which will allow the field of education as a whole to achieve collective impact.

From Humble Beginnings to Scientific Expertise

Heather shared that growing up her family struggled financially. Her parents did not graduate from high school, and she grew up in a rural area, spending most of her time outside. “I became interested in biology growing up, because I wanted a job that let me hang out in the woods, but I didn’t know how to get there.” By chance, she attended an event in middle school, where she met a wildlife biologist. “This showed me a glimpse of what a career in biology could look like, and let me see myself in her shoes.” Heather used her circumstances, and support from her parents, as a motivator to continue to push herself to succeed in her education. She started college at the age of 16 and began her doctoral program at 21. Heather excelled quickly and continued down the “traditional” path for a scientist. Though she now works in bridging education research and practice, Heather began her career as a biologist at the University of Chicago where her work made international news. She was also a fellow in the National Science Foundation’s Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship (IGERT), which supports graduate-level scientists in using an interdisciplinary approach to their research.

Left Turn Ahead

During her time as a researcher, Heather maintained her connection to education as an equalizer and source of opportunity. In 2007, she started volunteering with Project Exploration. She primarily worked with Sisters4Science, on the All Girls Expedition to Yellowstone National Park, and in crafting professional development opportunities for scientists interested in working with youth. Reflecting on that time, Heather says, “I loved helping the middle school girls learn about science in a hands-on way, and see themselves as scientists. Building that identity is crucial for students to persist in the STEM fields.” It was her work with Project Exploration that revealed careers in STEM outside of the lab. The skills she learned through Project Exploration proved impactful for both youth and educators here and now. Though she was successful in her research, she found that working to improve education seemed to be her calling. This is where her career path took a left turn. After earning her doctorate, she transitioned to Outlier Research and Evaluation at the University of Chicago, studying the implementation of STEM high schools, supports, and barriers to sustainable K12 computer science education, the implementation of math and science curricula, and led an evaluation of’s national offerings. Heather then served as the National Director of Evaluation for Spark, a career exploration and self-discovery program for middle school students. This opportunity brought her to her current role with Mission Measurement.

Dear Younger Me,

Heather shared advice to her younger self and current Project Exploration students, saying “there’s no exact and linear path through life or career. There are so many ways to apply your skills and passions! Don’t be afraid to take risks and pursue opportunities, even if they don’t quite fit with the norm.” With the help of Project Exploration, Heather leveraged the breadth of her experiences toward a different trajectory, and she is now able to connect her love of science, and her research skills to on the immediate issues that are impacting our world’s youth.

Looking Ahead

Heather looks forward to, once again, continuing her work with Project Exploration and the Chicago STEM Pathways Cooperative. She dreams to see her personal impact spread and to see how we can, together, tap into systems change. She urges other scientists who may be considering volunteering with Project Exploration not to hesitate! From her experience with Project Exploration, her message is clear: You know more than you think and you have more to share than you know. Basics go a long way and the impact you can have on our youth can be transformational – Heather knows this first hand, going all the way back to meeting that wildlife biologist, to transferring that inspiration to youth today, with the help of Project Exploration

For more information about how to connect as a STEM Mentor/STEM Professional, contact Program Manager, Kiara Byrd, [email protected].

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