Project Exploration - Youth-Science Pathways


"Since I was 5-years old, I dreamed of going on amazing adventures to strange lands, but it wasn’t until I got involved with PE that I saw a way to actually make that happen. The skills I gained at Project Exploration helped me as a student and as a teacher, and really helped me get through my doctoral research. I hope that my research can inspire young people the way Project Exploration once inspired me."

-- Elena Schroeter, Ph.D - PE alum 

Program Type

Hands on/Project-Based
Informal /Out of School

Target Audience

All Students




Pre-K - 5
Grades 6 - 8
Grades 9 - 12

 Promising link

Program Impact

Project Exploration annually reaches 300-400 youth from some of Chicago’s most underserved communities, providing them with experiences that have been shown to increase high school graduation, enrollment in college, and careers in STEM-related fields.

In 2012, Project Exploration led the first citywide survey of out-of-school time STEM experiences for youth, and is currently focused on coordinating program providers, funders, and the business community.

PE has been cited by the President’s Council of Advisors for Science and Technology as a national model for leveling the playing field for historically underrepresented populations in STEM, and received the Excellence In Summer Learning Award from the National Summer Learning Association.


Program Overview

Project Exploration (PE) engages middle and high school youth from Chicago in hands-on activities led by active scientists and engineers who act as mentors and role models.

PE is a nationally recognized nonprofit science education and youth development organization whose mission is to make science and engineering accessible to traditionally overlooked communities, particularly minority youth and girls. PE programs take many shapes, including:

  • Year-long after-school programs
  • Immersive multi-week investigations into specific scientific disciplines
  • Day-long conferences on health and science
  • Internships in real science settings

There are no fees or academic prerequisites, and we strive to recruit students who are inquisitive and ambitious, but are not necessarily “straight-A” students. Experiences in these programs build students’ self-confidence, increase their leadership, teamwork, and communication skills, and give them the tools to become thoughtful, inquisitive, and successful adults. Regardless of topic, we strive to help students believe – “Science is a community that welcomes me and values me for who I am.”

In addition to direct programming for youth, PE participates in numerous STEM-related civic initiatives, leveraging 15 years of experience to help build a STEM ecosystem that benefits all young people.

How To Get Involved

With our relationship-based program model, Project Exploration’s programs feature many opportunities for professional scientists and engineers to volunteer. Those interested in financial support can support programs generally, or sponsor specific programs. For example, one year of Sisters4Science, our weekly afterschool program for middle-school girls, costs roughly $25,000 per site.  Support for our leadership in citywide efforts to improve access to STEM is also gratefully accepted. 

Funders and Partners

Funders include: Motorola Solutions Foundation, ADM Cares, Peoples Gas, Polk Bros. Foundation, Chicago Foundation for Women, The Albert Pick Jr. Fund, the REAM Foundation, and City of Chicago’s Department of Family and Support Services. Partners include: Hive Chicago Learning Network, Ten80 Education, Motorola Mobility, and numerous community development corporations in Chicago. 


Natasha Smith-Walker, Executive Director

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Design Principles

The programs in this database clear a high bar. STEMworks reviewed each program against the Design Principles for Effective STEM Philanthropy.

  • Accomplished
  • Developing
  • Undeveloped

Overarching Principles

  • Need

    Identify and target a compelling and well-defined need.

  • Evaluation

    Use rigorous evaluation to continuously measure and inform progress towards the compelling need identified.

  • Sustainability

    Ensure work is sustainable.

  • Replication and Scalability

    Demonstrate replicability and scalability.

  • Partnerships

    Create high impact partnerships

  • Capacity

    Ensure organizational capacity to achieve goals.

STEM Principles

  • Challenging and Relevant Content

    Offer challenging and relevant STEM content for the target audience

  • STEM Practices

    Incorporate and encourage STEM practices.

  • Inspiration

    Inspire interest and engagement in STEM.

  • Under-Represented Groups

    Identify and address the needs of under-represented groups.