President Barack Obama poses with Presidential Awards for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching winners in the Blue Room of the White House Jan. 6, 2010. (Official White House Photo by Samantha Appleton)

President Barack Obama poses with Presidential Awardees for Excellence in Mentoring in the White House Jan. 6, 2010. (Official White House Photo by Samantha Appleton)

On January 6th, the day the 22 Presidential Mentors received their awards for excellence in science, mathematics and engingeering mentoring, the Assistant Director of the National Science Foundation, Cora Marrett, closed the ceremony with the following words. “This is a commencement.”

A commencement. The beginning of starting something.

None of us who spent four days in Washington for the award symposium and ceremony knew the following when we arrived:

That we’d be part of an extradordinary group of passionate educators dedicated to making change at all levels of the science spectrum; that we’d have a chance to sit down – for extended periods of time with THE people who are writing the science education policy for the country; or that we would meet and be recognized by the President in remarks to the nation. I had no idea President Obama would mention Project Exploration  (and especially our Junior Paleontologists) as a model program for the country in his second speech on the “Educate to Innovate” campaign.

President Obama's second "Educate to Innovate" speech, January 6, 2010.

President Obama's second "Educate to Innovate" speech, January 6, 2010.

A few days have gone by and I’ve had the chance to tell stories of what it was like to meet President Obama (outstanding) to explore the East Wing of the White House, and to see the National Academy of Sciences.

Posing with portraits of First Ladies while we toured the White House.

Posing with portraits of First Ladies while we toured the White House.

I described talking with Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and Michael Lach and other folks from the Department of Education, the Director of the National Science Foundation, members of the White House Council on Women and Girls, and representatives from PCAST- the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology.

Mike Lach-IMG_0927

But here is what I am most struck by: What if Project Exploration hadn’t received the award. What if we hadn’t been at the table during discussions about science and engineering education, access and equity. What if our students’ voices had NOT been represented amongst this august group during these pithy conversations?

Gabrielle Lyon talking with members of PCAST at the National Academy of Sciences.

Gabrielle Lyon talking with members of PCAST at the National Academy of Sciences.

I think something critical would have been missing.

1) At Project Exploration we know from first-hand experience with nearly a 1000 students that the way our science education system is structured leaves out 80% of the population. The true minorities of science and engineering are comprised of students of color and girls, but they also include students who are poor and students who are not academically successful. We were able to bring these issues to the table.

2) The “pipeline” metaphor – the way everyone talks about moving students from interest in science in elementary school through to a PhD and research in science after graduate school  – is not only limiting, it’s devastating. Students’ real lives take them on meandering paths. And students who are poor or struggle academically, whose options are limited by the zipcode they are born in have lives that are not always of their own choosing – pursuit of ambitions and dreams can be a stop-start-kind of experience. School for a while, work for a while, raise kids for a while, go back to school for a while. There needs to be a place for young people and their interests science in all of these transformations. We were able to tell stories from the lives of our students that made these issues real, compelling and relevant.

3) Attention to science, engineering and math education needs to incorporate the out-of-school world as a vibrant, relevant aspect of what can be transformational about a new approach. Students need to go to school and become part of our democratic society; we need school to help us build democracy.  If we want to truly educate to innovate we must innovate how we educate. But most importantly we need to innovate WHO we are educating. We were able to talk about partnerships that helped unite young people’s success out of school with their academic lives – and show evidence through high school graduation and pursuit of higher education that this is a fertile model for equipping students to move forward with education.

Presidential Awardees at the National Academy of Sciences, 1-7-10.

Presidential Awardees at the National Academy of Sciences, 1-7-10.

Project Exploration was at the table to contribute to hard, thoughtful conversations amongst 21 allies from around the country (some even originally from Chicago!). The issues we raised were supported by researchers and educators at the highest level from around the country. Being there meant we were able to contribute the most important voice of all to the conversation about the country’s future: our students’ voices.

1-PE Poster

If science is the future, I hope our students are the ones who will lead us there. Their lives and their stories can equip others to think about how to innovate how we educate. They are the educators – they can educate US. “Educate to Innovate” may just be opening the door to such a possibility.

THANK YOU TO EVERYONE WHO HAS ENCOURAGED, SUPPORTED, AND PROMOTED PROJECT EXPLORATION.  Thank you especially to the scientists and students who have helped us build everything that is great about Project Exploration from the ground up.

This award is just the beginning. It’s a commencement.

Picture1