A Passion for Science
“It wasn’t my classroom experience that ignited my passion for science education—it was the first formative experiences with my parents that did.” Jameela Jafri has been with us for thirteen years, beginning in the role of Project Exploration Girl’s Program Coordinator and then as Director of Girl’s Program, the Director of Youth Science Pathways, the Director of the Chicago STEM Pathways Cooperative and now serving as our Project Director. Being with PE has helped her to grow professionally and personally as well, while keeping equity, access, and social justice at the forefront of her life’s work.
All About Jameela
Jameela was born and raised in New York where her family settled after immigrating from Pakistan. Her mom was a math teacher and her dad has always worked in science labs. So, from a young age, she wanted to explore the world through the lens of science. She attended college at Barnard College, Columbia University majoring in biology with a minor in anthropology. After completing her bachelor’s degree and then chose to continue her education, receiving her graduate degree in Secondary Education from Teachers College, Columbia University.
After graduation, Jameela taught high school science in public and private schools for four years on the east coast. She absolutely loved teaching and had known since middle school that she wanted to be a science teacher. She has always loved learning, teaching and explaining things to people and was driven to pursue science education. her parents were one of the strongest influences in her life and they pushed her to pursue that dream. Her dad brought slides home from his laboratory for her to learn and explore. Her parents purchased a telescope to help her learn about the moon and outer space. She had many questions about the world and once she learned the answers, she wanted to share that learning with others and teach them what she knew. As a first-generation American, she did not always know how to seek out opportunities for her passion for science by visiting museums or participating in the after-school and weekend programs that many cities offer.
New Opportunities for Growth and Learning
In 2006, she moved to Chicago and looked for opportunities in science. She had never considered working in the non-profit arena but saw the PE job posting for a Girl’s Program Coordinator, a position that seemed to embody her own belief in the importance of science and education. Her own classroom time as a child had not provided the primary influence on her desire to pursue a career in science and she wanted to give young girls the same opportunities to explore science as her parents had given her. In this first position, Jameela designed and delivered programs through Sisters4Science (S4S) in four schools.
Running S4S and working with the young girls in that program had a huge impact on her life. She invested in those relationships, learning from each individual and developing the program around their needs and desires. She has maintained in contact with a few of the young girls throughout these years and eventually became a mentor to some of them. Jameela personally understood the importance of having a mentor in your life who cares about you personally and professional is so important. When she thought back about herself in high school and college, she wished she would have reached out and created those kinds of relationships back then. Today, she believes that the relationships between students and facilitators at PE are almost more important than the material that students are learning.
Eventually, Jameela became the Director of Girl’s Program. This position involved evaluations, understanding data and being able to tell the Girl’s Program story. One piece of advice that Jameela would give to her younger self is to constantly challenge yourself and put yourself in a situation where you’re asked to develop new skills. Throughout her time at PE she has been in a variety of roles and situations that have helped her learn new skills including federal and state grant writing, data analysis, and providing professional training for others. We are all constantly learning and, as PE’s mission says, …equipping them with the skills, practices, and mindset needed for a lifelong pursuit of learning.
Jameela explained her own experience with a mentor, “My mentor throughout my entire time is Gabrielle Lyon, the founder of Project Exploration, and she continues to be my mentor today. She is constantly keeping students at the center and thinking about equity and social justice. Everything I did at PE was guided by Gabe’s vision. She has been a huge influence in my life actually.”
Most Memorable Experience
The All Girls Expedition week-long trip to Yellowstone National Park is her most memorable experience. Working with Kristin Atman Smith, Program Director, and the program team, she designed an experience where a group of young girls from Chicago Public Schools would travel together on an incredible adventure where they could see and appreciate nature in ways they never had before. For some of the girls, this was their first time leaving the city, taking a plane, or going to a national park. Jameela remembered the trip, “There is something so special and magical about this trip being at Yellowstone because it is the very first national park.”
This trip was designed to help the girls find their identity by experiencing incredible challenges in immersive learning. During the four years she participated, Jameela felt that the experience was as incredibly impactful for the girls as it was for her. The opportunity offered the girls an experience that is normally only available to students whose participation would be based upon prerequisites or logistics such as transportation. Project Exploration pushes through those barriers creating equitable and accessible opportunities. “All Girls Expedition wasn’t just about taking them from their environment to a new one but to show them how the world is connected.” Jameela also felt that it was about “showing how the nature and beauty of Chicago and Yellowstone are connected”. The program was designed to ”make them feel that the city in which they are growing up in has something to explore and learn about and connect these two places”.
Her Next Adventure
In January, Jameela and her family will leave Chicago and relocate to Oakland, California. She is excited about the opportunity to explore the natural world through hiking and birdwatching with her almost 4-year-old toddler in Northern California. She is also looking forward to continuing to share her passion with students there just as she did at PE because, as she said, “Once a PE student, always a PE student” The PE organization will always be a part of who she is.
Special thanks to L. Shoulterkarall