Project Exploration’s History
Excerpted from Project Exploration’s Personalized Curriculum: Fostering Access and Equity in Science Out-Of-School
By Dr. Gabrielle H. Lyon
When I co-founded Project Exploration, I did not compile a list of best practices from the literature and then design a program. Rather, as I became aware of the dearth of opportunities in science, particularly for regular or struggling students like the ones I was teaching in a South Side Chicago Public elementary school, I created a program drawn from my experiences as an activist educator, a paleontology field scientist and a historical researcher. I created learning environments where small groups of students could engage in meaningful work alongside and with scientists and caring adults. These programs sought out Black and Latino middle and high school students, particularly girls, and enabled them to do real science alongside scientists. My goal was nothing less than to give students the opportunity to experience firsthand the wonder and discovery that scientists have access to in their professional lives.
These initial programs were intended to launch ongoing, long term relationships with students and I prioritized finding ways to get to know students—not only their names but also their interests, their lives and activities outside of the program, their preferred modes of communication (writing, singing, talking, and drawing). I looked to students to help me create the organization and, within programs, to choose modes and media through which they would communicate their learning experiences and identity with others. Given the place science holds culturally and educationally as a subject reserved for students who are academically successful, I worked especially hard to find and engage students who were not academically successful. The question of how to make science accessible was constantly on my mind.
What is access?
This word intentionally makes reference to a struggle for equality and civil rights for all. Access is “the ability, right, or permission to approach, enter, speak with, or use; admittance.” For Project Exploration, access encompasses equality in terms of:
- Economic status
- Opportunity irrespective of academic achievement
Our work is at the crux of an ongoing struggle for equality.
Why science and scientists?
Science may be the last acceptable bastion of inequity. It is the last academic discipline of which it is acceptable to be illiterate. It is acceptable in our society for a parent to ask their child “Why would you do a science program? Are you planning to be a scientist?” Can any of us imagine a parent or teacher feeling it was acceptable for a student was not being taught how to read? Science is an intellectual and imaginative experience that offers a way to make sense of the world using a rational approach based on evidence and critical questions.
Interacting in person and repeatedly with scientists can be an out-of-reach experience for our students if not for the programs offered through Project Exploration. The primary opportunity to be with a scientist is in a lecture as an audience member. This setting reinforces many of the ways science exists in our culture: some people are especially smart and we will go hear them. The metaphor of priests and the parishioners are enacted and reenacted, reinforcing the status quo of these roles through time and generations. Project Exploration’s focus on fostering and supporting long term relationships means students have the chance to get to know scientists over time rather than just meeting a scientist briefly, once, as part of a large group.
Essential Practices and Principles
- Prioritizes Relationships – activities intentionally avoid placing STEM professional at the front of the room as a lecturer and prioritizes students getting to work meaningfully alongside and develop longterm relationships with STEM professionals and PE staff.
- Consciousness Raising – the activity’s intentionally create space for students and the STEM professionals to reflect on the uniqueness of the opportunity being offered and the role students play in the activity. For example, staff raise awareness among students of how unusual it is for any group of students to meet so many STEM professionals of color and elevate them as trailblazers. Often, students aren’t aware of this as a social or political issue—they only think about science in terms of their personal preferences. In doing so, we not only tell the students, “you can be an engineer or doctor or app developer,” we are saying it within a context of the work students are actually doing in that moment.
- Co-Created with Students – curriculum is designed to ensure students have choice in the problems on which to focus, the tools which are applied to problem solving, and/or give students ownership in how their solution will be presented to one another and their community.
- Writing and Reflection – programs intentionally create time and space for students to reflect on the activity individually and as a group. Writing, reading and talking using a structured process is a tool for helping students to make meaning, construct knowledge and develop fluency with literacy and voices.
- Accessible – activities and materials designed in such a way where they are accessible to ALL students, particularly those who may not be academically successful. This includes attention paid to ensure curriculums are culturally competent.
- Public Component – opportunities are continuously created to ensure students can share their work with a public audience. Ideally, this includes convening a diverse public around science and curiosity—especially people who do not regularly come together—to share experiences with our young people. Running programs with a public component is not only useful for validating students’ work, it is good for all of us. This activity enables students to practice communication skills, to have their ideas listened to; but it also affects the public that sees them. Seeing students knowledgeable and excited about science helps audiences realize that non-traditional students are capable of such work.