Executive Director and Co-Founder, Project Exploration
“At the end of the day, are you helping a young person move forward?”
In 1999 she co-founded Project Exploration. “Our mission,” she told me, “is to make science accessible to the public. We have a special focus on minority youth and girls, students that are traditionally overlooked, underrepresented in science. But the reason I got started and why I’m digging in so hard about issues that I really care about is because I have a justice agenda and an orientation to education that says kids’ learning should be connected to what they’re passionate and curious about.”
We meet in her office at Project Exploration, and she talks about the genesis of P.E., and why it so important to her.
Today, Gabe is
When I was at the University of Chicago as an undergraduate, I had a need-based scholarship, but I needed a job. I knew I wanted to do something I enjoyed or that I really cared about. I found my way into a program that put undergraduates into “neighborhood schools.” I taught at Fiske Elementary School, which is literally a stone’s throw from where we’re sitting now, and I found that the life of the classroom was just galvanizing. Very powerful.
What I ended up doing was spending time with kids who really were struggling with school. I was drawn to young people who were not finding anything in school to interest them. They were curious; they were open-minded, but they were in the hall. I kind of have a special antenna for that kind of kid. I think I’ve always been in one way or another on the edges of finding work that involved making change. It’s part of who I am. My father was a photographer for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, SNCC. My mother is an artist. They’re both kind of beatniks. So there was always a kind of non-mainstream critique of society growing up.
I actually tried to take some education classes when I was at the University of Chicago, and they were deadly. They were just deadly. Boring. Really boring. They seemed really unconnected to anything I was experiencing as a Work Study student in a living classroom with real kids. I thought, I’ll never go into education. I studied medieval religious mysticism. I did a Master’s, my fourth year of college, on the history of anthropology. I had a job for a photo journalist, Susan Meiselas, as a researcher, I flew all over looking at archives and wrote about missionaries, experiences in Kurdistan. I did a variety of things.
Then I took a class that had a geology trip. Two the undergraduates were invited to go on an expedition to Niger. This was really a classic, epic expedition. A dozen people flew to England, packed dehydrated food into a caravan of five Land Rovers, drove through Europe, took a ferry to Algiers, sat at customs for three days, waiting, customs wanted a bribe, nobody was going to give them a bribe. Finally we get released, and then we cross the desert and there was a revolution going on! We eventually came back with five tons of dinosaur fossils. Really exciting. But it was also something that I felt was a privilege, to go on an expedition.
When I got back, I really wanted to share this with my kids at Fiske. So I started bringing scientists into the classroom. Looking back, everything seems like it was leading up to Project Exploration, but at the time these were just ideas.
I thought, look at how curious the kids are! Why don’t I see if one of the team members would come in and talk about what it’s like to be a paleontologist and let the kids touch a fossil that’s 130 million years old? You or I, as people who go to museums or have money, there’s a good chance eventually in our life we’ll touch a fossil.
For a kid living on 61st and Ingleside, there’s no chance, unless somebody is doing something out of the ordinary to make sure that happens. Whose job is it to make sure kids have access to science? The University science programs were for academic elites, the top 5-10%. There were great programs, but for a very small portion of the population. What about my kids at Fiske Elementary? There was nothing for them, and there certainly wasn’t anything if you were a screw up in school.
Then a couple things happened. [Paleontologist] Paul Sereno, who had led the expedition and who I was dating at the time, was teaching a college class that was taking a group to Texas for an expedition. I’m like, Look, the bus is paid for. Let’s bring some of the kids that I’m teaching, too. There are empty seats, how stupid is that? My kids would love to go to Texas, that’s wild, let’s do that. Put them on the bus, teach them as we go.
But I found it was hard to get them to make the most out of a trip like this if they weren’t really prepared and don’t have any content background, so I realized I needed to take that more seriously. So next time I’ll do a session or two with them before we go in the field. I took four the first time; ten the next. On the third trip, I said to the kids, “All right. When we get back, you’re going to help us plan how to really run this program and we’ll get some money and then we’re going to keep doing this.”
In 1995, Paul announced a dinosaur at National Geographic. It made huge headlines. It was Africa’s answer to T-rex. We had driven to New York City overnight, the whole team. Paul was on the Today Show or some morning show, and we were bleary-eyed at about 5:00 in the morning. We sat in a diner in New York and said, “Wouldn’t it be great if there was actually a place where kids, like the ones at Fiske, could get together with scientists? And imagine if there was actually a home for those kinds of interactions where you could have live plants and animals and dinosaur bones and people would want to come and it would be free and when you came inside the kids would be there showing what they’d learned in science! So that was the idea.
Paul seems immediately receptive to the idea. What made him so open to it?
Paul hated school. He’s one of six kids. He had four fifth grade teachers. He was in need of attention, made trouble to get attention, and also really struggled. In second grade he was still struggling to tell time on a clock. But Paul’s also very politically aware. And part of what kept us doing things like putting kids from Fiske onto the bus at the University of Chicago was, he agreed with me that it’s really important to take science out of the Ivory Tower.
For me, science is a space to work for equity. That’s really a need. It’s a bastion of inequity in a lot of ways for many, many reasons. So this was a space where I could work through and work on the things that I cared about that I’d always been working on.
It’s all about the question that’s at the heart of what the struggle is all about. What is the relationship between adults and young people and how do you make your way? That’s what the struggle is about, and some people get certain kinds of adults and certain kinds of experiences that are mostly positive, mostly encouraging and mostly well-resourced; and some kids get experiences with adults that are mostly discouraging and mostly under- resourced or not resourced at all. That’s the struggle. We all have biases, but at the end of the day, are you helping a young person move forward?
The thing about a dig is that I find it a very democratic endeavor. I am just as likely to find something as Paul was or as you might be. If you have more experience, like a professional, or experienced, paleontologist or fieldworker, you might recognize what you’re finding. Sure. But we could all find something important. So could a kid, and a kid has! We’ve had kids find new species out in Montana. The Juanosaurus, named for Juan who found it.
Kids get to excavate, they work in plaster, they collect things, they put their initials on it; they learn about how to be organized, how to take notes, how to observe, how to take care of each other, how to be responsible for equipment and gear. They come home and they realize, I have enormous capacity to do something significant.
In 2009, President Obama named Project Exploration a recipient of the Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics, and Engineering Mentoring.
Gabe told me, “When I was in high school, I was put in dummy science. After I graduated, I found out that my 8th grade teacher was actively tracking girls out of science when they transitioned into high school.
“It always makes me wonder, what if Mrs. Palmari had said, “You seem to really like science.” I was very tempted, when we got this presidential award, to write a letter to Mrs. Palmari who didn’t put me in the advanced or middle-track of science because she thought I wasn’t going to be a scientist, just to let her know.”