Project Exploration creates life-changing experiences

Project Exploration (PE) provides life-changing opportunities for minority youth and girls. Our organization not only exposes students to different science topics and concepts but creates life-changing experiences as well. Operations Director, Kamentha Pillay, and Program Manager, Kiara Byrd, sat down with Kaitlin Rushing to discuss how Project Exploration affected her life and inspired her to pursue a career in a STEM field.

Kaitlin meets Gabrielle Lyon, Co-founder of Project Exploration

Kaitlin was introduced to Project Exploration in middle school while attending North Kenwood Oakland Charter School.  Dr. Hoffman, director of the school at the time, spoke with Kaitlin’s mom and, with her permission, referred Kaitlin to the Junior Paleontology (JP) program in order to learn new skills. Kaitlin was hesitant about joining the program because she was not only shy but not confident that she would ever be good at science. And, as explained to Gabe Lyon, the Co-founder of Project Exploration, Kaitlin’s previous experience had also included being told by a teacher that she would never do well in science. During the interview, Gabe made sure to encourage Kaitlin, telling her that she was a great candidate for the program. Because of Gabe’s encouraging words and support, Kaitlin decided to see what the Junior Paleontology program had to offer.  

Kaitlin joins Junior Paleontology and begins her travels

The first field trip the students in the program took was a trip to Starved Rock State Park. Kaitlin and the other students learned about nature, different types of dinosaurs and how to investigate scientific findings. The trip was Kaitlin’s first time away from her mother, as well as her first time outside of Chicago. “I was blown away! I am away from my mom, traveling outside of the city, and learning about science on this level was all new for me.” From that very first trip, all that she learned has stuck with her and, even to this day, she still loves to go hiking and credits the Junior Paleontology program. On the second field trip, this time to Montana, Kaitlin learned the importance of journaling and reflecting on the experiences she and other students observed. Being shy, journaling and then reading her experiences to other students helped her to build self-confidence, opening up to other students and moving beyond her comfort zone. On the second field trip to Montana, Kaitlin and her fellow JP’s also went rock climbing, which proved to be an even bigger eye-opener for Kaitlin than she realized at the time. This was her first experience with rock climbing and at first, she was scared. But Gabe encouraged her to put one foot forward and to keep going. With Gabe’s support, Kaitlin made it to the top of the mountain. That achievement was transformational for Kaitlin and after she made it to the top of the mountain, the shy girl was gone.

Becoming a Student Representative on the PE Board

Kaitlin really enjoyed the field trips and Gabe, recognizing her growth, asked Kaitlin to be a student representative on the board for leadership experience. Being on the board helped Kaitlin gain experience in networking, providing a deeper understanding of what happens behind the scenes, offered her a chance to be a voice for the students in the program and allowed her to articulate how influential the program was for students.

Coming Full Circle:  Kaitlin mentors a current PE student

Kaitlin drew upon her experiences even after she transitioned out of the program. Kaitlin attended DePaul University with a focus in Environmental & Urban Policy and later started a career at ComEd in the Marketing Department, where she focused on increasing customer awareness around energy efficiency. She then took on a challenge and is now working in the ComEd, Operations department. Even though her current career path is within STEM, she is also very passionate about mentoring. Encouraged by Gabe and the support she received within the JP program, Kaitlin wants to give back to other youth and provide them with that same mentorship.

In 2018, Kaitlin reconnected with Project Exploration and worked with the Program Manager to coordinate a field trip to the Smart Energy Hub through ComEd. On the day of the field trip, Kaitlin spoke with the students who participated in the Environmental Adventurers program, discussed various career opportunities and encouraged them to ask her any STEM questions that they had. One student, Moneeka Taylor, approached Kaitlin at the end of the field trip and asked her to be her mentor. Kaitlin is still in touch with Moneeka and her mother as well, supporting Moneeka in areas of school and career-readiness. Kaitlin was humbled that Moneeka chose her to be her mentor. This experience has encouraged her to continue to explore new opportunities to bring her mentorship into classrooms with middle school students.

STEM Mentors Matter!

Project Exploration focuses on building relationships with students. STEM mentorship is a key component in supporting youth through out-of-school time programs, whether they are exposed/familiar with STEM topics or not. For underrepresented youth, growing up in Chicago does not always offer them an opportunity to see themselves in careers in the larger world.

Kaitlin offered this advice to students who may be hesitant to try new things. “If I were to give advice to students, I would say don’t be afraid to step outside your comfort zone and don’t be afraid to learn about any topic.” Kaitlin knows that it is important for students to get out of their neighborhood and conquer their fears. She believes that conquering the fear of “learning something new” can really help with you learn about different perspectives and have a better understanding of the world around you.

As Project Exploration turns 20, we wish to acknowledge the alumni who have been positively impacted by the program and to offer their perspectives as a means of expressing why we provide the programs that we do. Our core values of equity, authentic and meaningful experiences, and students are at the center of how Project Exploration continues to brings hope and change to generations to come.

Kaitlin offered this advice to students who may be hesitant to try new things. “If I were to give advice to students, I would say don’t be afraid to step outside your comfort zone and don’t be afraid to learn about any topic.” Kaitlin knows that it is important for students to get out of their neighborhood and conquer their fears. She believes that conquering the fear of “learning something new” can help with you learning about different perspectives and have a better understanding of the world around you.

As Project Exploration turns 20, we wish to acknowledge the alumni who have been positively impacted by the program and to offer their perspectives as a means of expressing why we provide the programs that we do. Our core values of equity, authentic and meaningful experiences, and students are at the center of how Project EXploration continues to brings hope and change to generations to come.

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