Renowned U of C paleontologist Paul Sereno and alumna Gabrielle Lyon (A.B ’94, A.M. ’94) were honored Wednesday by the White House for their science mentoring program, Project Exploration, which pairs minority students and scientists to foster long-term interest in science.
The Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics, and Engineering Mentoring is awarded every two years for accomplishments stimulating interest in the sciences among minority students who might not otherwise be interested in those fields.
Project Exploration was one of three organizations to win the award.
Sereno said the program grew out of “aspirations of a new model for bringing science to populations that are underrepresented in scientific endeavors.”
Project Exploration has a “drastic effect” on high school graduation rates, Sereno said. Exploration students have a 94 percent graduation rate, compared to 50 percent before they enroll in the program.
Sereno admitted he wasn’t interested in science as a teen, but a paleontology dig and other extracurricular events sparked his curiosity, teaching him the value of hands-on and out-of-school science to attract students. Those ideas have been implemented in Project Exploration’s programs, which include trips to archaeological dig sites.
Sereno said he hopes the program “will be an approach that gains traction,” because of its novel model of long–term mentoring with scientists. “The key to mentoring is in the time and relationships,” he said.
The program was founded a decade ago with the help of Michelle Obama, who was involved in revamping U of C community outreach programs at the time. President Barack Obama also witnessed the success of Project Exploration firsthand when he attended several of the program’s annual events.