Project Exploration

Project Exploration

Project Exploration is a nonprofit STEM education and youth development organization that features out-of-school time programs for minority boys and girls. The Logan Square Neighborhood Association (LSNA) is a community-based organization advancing diversity, leader development, and models for engagement as a catalyst for social justice in the Logan Square neighborhood of Chicago. The Chicago Botanic Garden supported the development of the climate change curriculum that was implemented in Project Exploration's programs.

Project Description: 

Project Exploration (PE) worked to create a pathway for minority middle school and high school students in Chicago Public Schools to learn about environmental science and climate change from scientists and engineers affiliated with civic institutions and environmental organizations. PE was able to accomplish this by using our Sisters4Science program—an afterschool program providing middle school girls an opportunity to experience STEM fields in a hands-on and interactive way with professionals who work in a variety of STEM fields—and by combining that structure with a curriculum provided by the Chicago Botanic Garden, as well as the Connect project itself, to focus the students’ activities and learning on the environmental sciences and climate change. This was PE’s first attempt to do a single subject-focused curriculum in our Sisters4Science program. The students enjoyed building on their knowledge from week to week and having visits from STEM professionals whose work and research is related to climate change; one such professional is Dr. Michelle Harris, who works with solar panels to improve their performance and enhance the use of this alternative energy source. Having a structured curriculum focused on climate change and the environmental sciences has inspired PE to continue its efforts in further youth education by providing a high school program centered on these topics. This program, called Environmental Adventurers, began in July 2016.

  • Educating student participants in the areas of ecology, environmental studies, and climate change
  • Connecting civic institutions and environmental organizations to minority communities and youth in the Chicago area
  • Creating a pathway for minority youth to enter into environmentally based careers and related college fields

Project Exploration works to increase the diversity of gender, race, and ethnic backgrounds in STEM fields and careers by providing out-of-school time programming in several Chicago Public Schools. These programs include Sisters4Science, Brothers4Science, Explore Technology, and Science Giants, among others. All programs include hands-on, interactive activities, as well as field trips and experiences with STEM professionals to enhance students' understanding of and interest in STEM-related educational and career opportunities. Sisters4Science has traditionally been structured to introduce middle school girls to a variety of STEM topics over a 12-week period, covering a different topic each week; through the Connect project, we created a climate change-focused Sisters4Science curriculum, concentrating for the entire 12 weeks on climate change in the students' neighborhoods. Activities included three Connect tools: Visual Collages, Climate Action Posters, and Climate and Community Jeopardy, along with other activities adapted from the Chicago Botanic Garden’s Climate Change in My Backyard curriculum.

The new structure allowed the girls in the program to apply their knowledge week to week, but they did miss the novelty of different experiments each week in a variety of subjects. The challenge was keeping their interest in the environmental sciences, but as the weather got warmer and we were able to apply the science outside as we worked on the activities, the girls became increasingly interested in the subject. At our final event, the Reflection of Knowledge, we truly saw the results of the subject-focused program. The girls impressed both the adults present and the other PE staff with their depth of knowledge and understanding of the topic.

Read more about the Project Exploration approach.

Tools in Action: 

Visual Collages

The participants in Sisters4Science at Funston Elementary started this activity with a discussion about what climate change was and how it was affecting the world around them. The discussion covered ways in which humans are creating climate change and strategies on how we can make, both individually and as a group, less of an impact to the climate change problem. The participants then created a list to address these questions. Using these lists as inspiration, the participants created their own collages (out of pictures found in newspapers and magazine clippings) showing how they can help lessen their impact on the planet. Using the materials provided, the students investigated and found different ways to represent eco-friendly practices, including creating their own gardens in their backyards, recycling more than just plastic bottles, and even designing a place to compost some of their plant-based trash. Allowing the girls to explore what they personally could do to lessen their impact on the planet and climate change seemed to have a direct impact on them. One challenge was providing a variety of magazines and resources in which  the students could find examples to add to their collage; this issue could be addressed by encouraging students to create a drawing rather than a collage.

Make your own collage
Finished collage

Climate Action Poster

For this activity, the participants in Sisters4Science at Funston Elementary worked together to create a campaign to encourage their fellow students to take up more eco-friendly habits. Using the knowledge that they developed over the school year, our instructor, Eugenia Ruiz, worked with the girls to establish solid goals and strategies that could translate well to their peers and be viable options for helping to reduce their impact on the environment. They established essential knowledge that their peers would need to know in order to understand the importance and impact our current practices are having on the planet; then they highlighted simple habit changes that could be implemented easily, such as being more aware of water consumption, recycling, opting for alternative transportation, and even encouraging the support of local farmers. The participants worked for several weeks to develop a visual display that laid out their plans and strategies, then presented the display at the Sisters4Science culminating event, Reflection of Knowledge, which took place at the Motorola Mobility offices. The students displayed their board and spoke with guests about their plan and how they were going to work to put it into place at their school the following year.

This activity was one of the most beneficial for the girls. They had an opportunity to use their gained knowledge from the year and apply it in a problem-solving manner for an audience of their peers.

We applied this tool somewhat differently than suggested by Connect project. Rather than have students think about their current climate-positive actions and share thought through a poster format, we used this project to create a public information campaign to communicate to the broader community ways they could reduce their carbon footprint or conserve resources.

Climate and Community Jeopardy

This tool was very fun for the participants, but did require planning and additional preparation time. We used Climate Jeopardy as an embedded assessment tool to review the facts, statistics, and eco-friendly habits that the girls had been learning about all year. We modified  Climate Jeopardy to include not only information about the Great Lakes but also water conservation, fun environmental facts, and geography questions. Participants were able to use any notes or worksheets they had from previous sessions. This tool offered an excellent way for the girls to not only review a lot of the information they had learned through the curriculum, but helped them realize how much they already know about climate change and water conservation. For middle schoolers, it’s always an engaging activity to institute some kind of competition and even more enriching when it is an educational game. This tool can also be used as a pre or post assessment by having students play the game at the beginning of the unit and then again at the end, when they see how much they have learned over the time of the program or experience.

Link to online game:

Organizations and People Involved: 
  • Jaclyn Carmichael, Project Exploration
  • Natasha Smith-Walker, Project Exploration
  • Eugenia Ruiz, Project Exploration
  • Latonya Jackson-Shine, Project Exploration
  • Kathy Johnson, Chicago Botanic Garden
  • Jennifer Schwarz Ballard, Chicago Botanic Garden