Gabrielle Lyon vividly recalls the origins of Project Exploration, the Chicago organization that introduces low-income students to the wonders of science. In the mid-1990s, as Lyon taught in public schools here and worked on education reform, her husband, the University of Chicago paleontologist Paul Sereno, was making headlines with dinosaur discoveries around the globe. But as Lyon learned, many urban kids had limited access to Sereno’s finds. “They could go to a museum that serves thousands and thousands of people,” she recalls, “but at the other end of the spectrum, there were special programs for elite students. There was nothing in between. There was no one in the city whose job it was to serve those [poorer] kids.”
Encouraged by Cindy Mitchell—a former Friends of the Parks president and Chicago Park District commissioner—Lyon and Sereno began Project Exploration. Its first big venture was the Junior Paleontologists program, which culminated in 1999 with a dozen young Chicagoans participating in a dinosaur dig in Montana. “We let those kids go on a real-life expedition,” says Lyon, 39. “They planned, researched, worked in the field—and that was just the beginning.”
Twelve years later, Project Exploration is thriving. In addition to Junior Paleontologists, it offers Forensic Investigators, Sisters4Science, and other programs and trips. The organization has served more than 1,000 students in middle school and high school, and today it has an annual budget of about $1.8 million. A recent study by the University of California–Berkeley found that 95 percent of its participants had graduated from high school, and 60 percent of those who went on to college are pursuing—or have earned—degrees related to science and math. And at the White House in January 2010, Lyon and Sereno (a former Chicagoan of the Year) received the Presidential Award for Excellence in Science Mentoring.
With a new CEO at the helm, Lyon has stepped down as Project Exploration’s executive director and has assumed the title of senior explorer, which will allow her to expand the organization’s reach and create new pathways for young urban students interested in science. “We’re with kids at a very critical moment, as they try to decide who they are going to become,” she says. “We help them discover so much about themselves, about the capacity they have. And we tell them, ‘You are smart—and you can get smarter!’”
Photograph: Katrina Wittkamp