How the Humanities Launched a STEM Organization

Project Exploration 2009 All Girls Expedition 5118102185 419ca6b2d6 k

By Gabrielle Lyon, Executive Director

Read Time 4 minutes
June 27, 2024

At Illinois Humanities we are committed to ensuring every Illinoisian has access to engage with the humanities. We do it through grant making and free public and education programs. We also know that we can find the humanities working in transformative ways in organizations that don’t necessarily call themselves “humanities” organizations.

Project Exploration, the youth science organization I founded in 1999, celebrated its 25th anniversary this month. I've been reflecting a lot on that organization and its model, and I’ve been realizing a good part of what makes the organization transformative is its foundation in the humanities.

Project Exploration was formed to address a fundamental gap in the education landscape: on one end of the spectrum, science museums hosted thousands of young people a day for field trips, and on the other end, intensive and competitive summer and after school programs served academically advanced young people, but there really wasn't anything in between those options. There certainly wasn't anything for a young person who struggled in school, or whose family didn't have the resources to pay for science enrichment. Project Exploration is a bridge between young people least likely to have access to STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) and passionate scientists from every field imaginable eager to share their curiosity.

The mission of Project Exploration is, literally, to change the face of science. But the model, from its earliest days, was grounded in the humanities. Hallmarks of the approach, regardless of the subject matter, included that students and their lives were at the center of program design; programs were relationship-based; and young people engaged with writing, reflecting, and talking together about their lives.

Most of all, Project Exploration ensured students were seen and known for who they were, and that their “real lives” were part of the conversation: 

we weren't trying to "make future scientists." We were trying to put science – and the wonders of the natural and physical world – into service on behalf of our students. 

The humanities were central to the ways in which we gathered: students’ lives were relevant, they were equipped and supported to be curious, and we were all empowered to learn together in a field of study that historically disenfranchised them.

In 2010 a 10-year evaluation by researchers at Berkeley found Project Exploration students were 3x more likely to enroll in a four-year college, and over one-third went on to major in STEM fields; many others have gone on to be teachers, writers, entrepreneurs, and political organizers. We received a Presidential Award for leveling the playing field in Science from the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology and a Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics, and Engineering Mentoring. These findings and recognition underlined that relationships with one another were the catalyst for engaging in science.

  • Project Exploration 2009 All Girls Expedition 5118106637 df7beebd9b k

    Project Exploration All Girls Expedition 2009 (photos courtesy Project Exploration)

  • Project Exploration 2009 All Girls Expedition 5118103759 24fa6665a6 k
  • Project Exploration 2009 All Girls Expedition 5118707994 4f0e621402 k
  • Project Exploration 2009 All Girls Expedition 5118703522 f0df1b3f89 k
  • Project Exploration 2009 All Girls Expedition 5118703232 a2d7d074ab k
  • Project Exploration 2009 All Girls Expedition 5118708096 3dd0936a27 k

As the Executive Director of Illinois Humanities, I get to champion the humanities "straight up." Each day I'm in this role I see with increasing clarity what the humanities are and why they are important. As Illinois Humanities evolves as an organization, my work is focused on helping other people recognize and appreciate the humanities. Part of this work involves explaining that the humanities are not, fundamentally, an academic discipline. The skills of the humanities absolutely can be honed razor sharp in higher education settings, and the efforts of humanities scholars are as critical and valuable to our collective humanistic endeavors as the most advanced applications of medicine, technology, or physics.

But becoming our fullest selves as humans – to have empathy, to make meaning of our lives, to struggle with possibilities and alternatives to what is most familiar, to imagine and to wonder – is something every person is able to engage in. That said, the ability to engage in these things skillfully requires intention, practice, and investment. Often these days, it requires radical protection.

Gathering with people we don't already know or who see things differently from us is hard. Sometimes it feels impossible. Activating, protecting, and investing in the humanities on behalf of all Illinoisians is what our team does at Illinois Humanities. It's our mission and we're deeply committed to it.

And yet, 25 years ago, Project Exploration made the humanities central to a STEM program that continues to enable young people least likely to be involved in science to be creative, connected, and in community. If Project Exploration can do it, I know the rest of us can, too.