Tech education nonprofit celebrates 20 years

Project Exploration, based in Bronzeville, has operated its West Side STEM Learning Center since 2017

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By Michael Romain


The building at 5044 W. Harrison St. in Austin would be nondescript but for an exterior paint job that turned beige walls into a multicolored façade that's more indicative of the exploration that happens inside of the building—in one room, a seemingly infinite supply of Legos; in another, a six-foot rocket that's been shot several hundred feet into the air before parachuting back down to earth.

Project Exploration, an organization founded in 1999 on the premise that access to high-quality science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education is a social justice issue, has operated its West Side STEM Learning Center inside of the building on Harrison since 2017. The organization's administrative offices are located in Bronzeville.

"We use science as a vehicle to create the ability to think critically," said Natasha Smith-Walker, Project Exploration's executive director, in a recent interview.

The organization has come a long way since 1999, Smith-Walker said. Back then, she said, very few women or minorities were involved in the sciences. Over two decades, Project Exploration has broadened its focus

"We really want to help develop a culture and the circumstances necessary for Austin or the West Side to gain access to the support and resources other communities naturally get," Smith-Walker said. "The goal is to expose kids in this community to as many types of STEM fields and access opportunities, so they continue an interest in the field."

Since the organization's been in Austin, Project Exploration has conducted summer camps and after-school programs for hundreds of Chicago Public School students in areas such as rocket science, computer coding, paleontology and biology, among others. The organization's funding has come from numerous corporate and academic philanthropic entities like Apple Education, LEGO Education and Northwestern University.

Project Exploration will celebrate its 20th anniversary with a program on Thursday, Sept. 26, 6 p.m. to 9 p.m., at the Columbus Park Refectory, 5701 W. Jackson Blvd.


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